Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Far Side of the Moon

The Fortarian Empire needed more warships. This was the decree of the Emperor. These warships would need nano-fiber hulls, fusion power sources, high energy lasers, computer systems, and countless other smaller investments. It wasn't immediately clear where the raw materials would come from. When traveling between the stars, it's best to travel light. You don't accelerate a million tons of carbon to relativistic speeds just because you might need a warship later.
Because of this, the Empire had decided to set up mining operations on the moon. They had been quick to create a domed city for the miners to live in. It was a hundred meters tall and two kilometers in radius, and could house about a million Fortarians. The person sent to administer over the largest mining operation in the solar system was one of the Emperors most trusted advisers. His name cannot be written in any human language, so let's call him Carpenter.

Carpenter was pissed. He was one of the most gifted Fortarians in all of history. So why was it that he was exiled to some barren moon by an Emperor with a brain made out of body fat?
He looked at the next item on his to-do list. He needed to build a space elevator sixty thousand kilometers long, stretching all the way to the Fortarian fleet. Building and operating it would consume as much wealth as the Fortarian economy produced in a week. Why wouldn't the Emperor have decided to built an army a few months earlier? It would have been so much easier in the asteroid belt. Carpenter once again decided that the Emperor was an idiot.
Carpenter called in his secretary in charge of air. "How are we doing on atmosphere? You know we're going to have people here in just a few weeks, and those people are going to want to breath."
"A thousand apologies to the servant of the Emperor. We did not bring enough air in reserve when we fled our home star. I am trying to produce more, but this moon is desolate. The crust is rich in oxygen, but we lack the carbon to create the carbon dioxide and the nitrogen."
"I don't suppose we could get that from Earth." Carpenter's thoughts turned to the pale blue planet he orbited. It's inhabitants may be precocious, but they were impetuous, and lived upon a planet lush with natural resources. Might they one day find themselves in the same boat as the Fortarians, fleeing for their lives through the cold emptiness of interstellar space. Somehow, Carpenter doubted it. It was only the sheer incompetence of Fortarian leadership, of Fortarian civilization in general, that had lead to this predicament. A thousand failures made by a thousand individuals. Earth had potential. They might rise to become mighty and respected. Or they might be crushed under the heels of an older, more powerful race. Even the Fortarians could do it without much trouble.
Carpenter turned his thoughts back the the idea of getting air from Earth just in time to hear his underling respond. "Not without the humans being aware, mighty servant of the Emperor. And I doubt they would appreciate us taking their atmosphere."
Carpenter turned the idea of military conquest over in his head. He rejected it. The Emperor wouldn't approve of a war over a cubic kilometer of gas. "We might try to buy it from them. And stop with the whole 'servant of the Emperor' thing. The Emperor is a-" and here he used a word that translated roughly to 'person who is fit only for comic relief and target practice.'
Carpenter's underling was a little taken-aback by the lack of reverence. Sure, everyone knew the Emperor was an idiot, but to actually say it...
"Forgive me, Oh- Forgive me. Another option is too extract the gas from the crust as we go. We can start small and build up the operation."
"Would that delay our plans?"
"Not much. It would bring us to nine of these lunar months instead of eight."
"You didn't hear? We're at nine anyway. Solar panels will take time to install. How does that effect things?"
"I don't know. Maybe this brings us to nine and a half? I'll have to look at the details."
"Do that. I want the whole report in my file before I get off work today."
"Very well." The air manager left to complete his task. Carpenter juggled whether or not to tell the Emperor about this latest minor setback. Should he wait until he had the report? No, the Emperor's office would be closing soon, and it would be better to tell him today.

Fortarians do not use phones. They are an advanced alien race, capable of bringing their entire species from one solar system to another. Their telecommunications included holograms, panoramic sound, and other devices to cater to senses humans don't even have, such as the very minor telepathic communication all Fortarians unconsciously share. Fortarians do not use phones, but it's fair to say that Carpenter was put on hold.
"What do you mean the Emperor can't speak to me right now?"
"He's in the middle of a very important engagement," the secretary on the other end responded.
"How long until he's free again." The secretary estimate how long it would take the Emperor to use the bathroom. "Not long at all."
Carpenter spent that time fuming about his Emperor's incompetence. Eventually, the cosmic leader picked up. "My servant, you have permission to speak."
"Thank you, mighty and wise one. May you rule forever in your unfathomable intelligence."
The Emperor took a second to remember what the word 'unfathomable' meant. "What matter does my servant wish to discuss?"
"The progress of my program here upon the moon. To create a fleet of new ships." Carpenter decided to gloss over the details. Partly because he didn't yet have the details, and partly because you never discuss details with an incompetent boss. "We had some minor trouble getting our hands on breathable air and electrical power, but we should have some soon. The whole process of constructing the ships might take nine and a half months." Only too late did Carpenter remember that the Emperor wasn't familiar with sidereal months in this new solar system. By the time Carpenter realized his mistake, the Emperor's aides had already made the translation.
The Emperor took a moment to turn the new timetable over in his head. "And you are working as fast as you can?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Fine. But no more unexpected delays. Our ally wants us ready soon."
"Very well, my lord." Ally? What ally? Earth?
"And, Carpenter, one more thing."
"Anything for my master."
"Tell me of these humans. Do they pose a threat."
"Some of them are clever. But their power is dim compared to that of the New Archivist, let alone our great and glorious empire. Their most dangerous weapons could barely penetrate our hull, even ignoring the fact that they would never reach us and the humans have no reason to fight us." Did the humans have reason to fight the Fortarians. If they did, then nobody had told Carpenter about it.
"So we and the New Archivist are the only powers within this solar system."
"The New Archivist is certainly a power, but I doubt she would do anything unless we went out of our way to provoke her. Rava-Iss had a strong policy of non-interference, and his successor would most likely continue it."
"That is good new indeed." The Emperor terminated his connection.  And Carpenter was left to wonder who this mysterious 'ally' was.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Puzzles Part 3

Vera surveyed the restaurant from within her armor. Well, she supposed it was Phoenix's armor. He was the one who had built it, and who had sent it to her. The armor had invisibly piloted itself across Europe before deploying in four seconds and allowing her to disappear while snapping her steel restraints. "I could get used to this high-tech battle armor."
"Actually, this is stealth armor."
It took a moment for Vera to recognize Noetron's voice. It sounded very different in a confined space.
"So," she said, "what's the plan?"
"The plan is that we will leave and Phoenix can avoid giving away weapons of mass destruction."
"What about the other hostages?"
Noetron was programmed to take between 0.2 and 0.4 seconds to respond to any question. It wasn't that he needed that time to think- he could do that in a few milliseconds- it was just that humans expect people to take some time to respond, and Phoenix found the instant responses annoying. So the fact that Noetron took a full second to answer indicated that he had thought long and hard about Vera's question, or that he had been caught utterly by surprised.
"I do not believe it is possible to save them without endangering your life. Phoenix values you approximately eighty-one point four million times more than any of them, so I cannot allow you to risk your life saving them."
Vera was astonished, both by the precision and magnitude of the number. "Well, tell him I disagree with his numbers."
"I will at the nearest opportunity."
"You can also tell him that I'm going to save these people." Vera began to walk towards one of the hostages, but found herself frozen in place. "Let me go," she snarled.
Noetron didn't release her from her mechanical cage. Instead, he began walking out of the restaurant.
Vera began to think. What would Professor Cognis do here? Probably find some flaw in Noetron's programming or trick the machine into releasing him. What about Gandhi?
"I'll go on a hunger strike."
"Are you implying that if I do not allow you to risk your life you will not eat for some prolonged period of time?"
"Very well." The Noetron kept walking.
"You think I won't follow through with it?"
"I think Phoenix is more than a match for a Gandhi pretender."
Vera thought of a better idea. "I'll break up with him."
She could almost feel Noetron calculating probabilities, trying to do some sort of cost-benefit analysis.
"If you can convince me that your plan has more than a seventy percent chance of you surviving, I will agree."
Vera thought for a few minutes. She explained her plan. After four seconds of calculation, Noetron rejected it, stating various objections to various stages. Vera thought of ways to improve the plan. Noetron rejected it again. On the fifth try, Noetron agreed.

The door to the kitchen was open. Vera invisibly entered. Flour was always risky when you're invisible. It ends up sticking to your invisible skin, making you not only invisible but ridiculous-looking. But Phoenix had put a lot of effort into making an invisible surface that no powder would adhere to. He had failed, but the resulting surface was repulsive to both flour and paint.
Vera carefully opened eight bags of flour. She added a small amount of water to each. When the water dried, the flour formed clumps about a centimeter in radius. Noetron made a note to mention that to Phoenix. It was an interesting scientific problem and Noetron couldn't detect any advanced work on the subject.
Vera moved the bags to the edge of the kitchen, hoping the people in the restaurant wouldn't notice bags of flour magically moving themselves. They didn't.
Meanwhile, Noetron was accessing cell phones. There were five cell phones with speakers powerful enough to be mistaken for a human voice. He took over all of them.
Vera used the armor's enhanced strength to fling the twenty-pound bags across the room. She blasted them with the armor's on-board laser, setting the bags ablaze.
"Fire," shouted a cell phone.
Within seconds, the entire restaurant was an inferno.
The henchmen ran out, while the hostages -all of whom were tied to chairs- were left to fend for themselves.
Vera flew in pursuit of the henchmen, while Noetron confirmed that the flour-fires had not been hot enough to ignite anything else, and that nobody was badly hurt.
It took less than a minute for Vera to beat up the henchmen. There were ten of them and one of her, but the one of her was invisible and wearing an Ultrasteel armor that enhanced her strength by a factor of twenty and featured lasers and a small machine gun.
She then returned to the building, and began snapping the bonds that held her fellow hostages in place. It took about twenty minutes to free them all.
She was preparing to leave when her body suddenly froze. "Noetron, what are you doing?"
At this point, she saw the Puzzlemaster walking up to her and realized that Noetron's code had been compromised.

Vera had been captured. Puzzlemaster controlled her armor. No, she realized. Not necessarily. He might have just shut some parts of it down. As long as she was encased in the Ultrasteel shell, he couldn't really hurt her. Her video screens went dark for a second. Then, slowly, her helmet removed itself. The rest of her body was still entrapped.
The Puzzlemaster cackled with glee. "You thought you could escape, with your carbon fiber can. My ability to trap has made me a happy man. The deadline for your lover is fifteen minutes time. You will get your freedom, and the weapon will be mine."
Vera thought about saying something defiant like 'you'll never get away with this,' but her heart wasn't in it.

At this point, the cavalry arrived. I was still carrying the nuclear weapon. "Hello, Puzzlemaster. I have something for you." I put the missile on the ground. "You might have trouble carrying it now that you henchmen got beaten up by a girl. So if you step away from Vera, I'll break the missile open and get you your uranium. I see you have a submarine in the river there. I hope you can carry fifteen kilograms that far."
I tore the missile apart, and lifted out the two balls of fissile material. I made sure to leave the neutron source inside the bomb.
He didn't make a move. "What. you want me to carry this for you. I already carried it here from North Korea. I think you can handle the rest."
Policemen were beginning to gather. This needed to end quickly before one of them screwed something up.
He had a gun to Vera's head. She seemed to be a little rattled. She wasn't even making witty backtalk to the maniac pointing a gun at her.
I walked the material to his submarine. "There. You happy?"
The Puzzlemaster smiled as he walked towards the river. He shot Vera in the jaw and jumped in.

I could either stop the Puzzlemaster or treat Vera. I chose the latter. I immediately scanned her body for damage. Jaw bone shattered, but that could be fixed. With her DNA, I could grow her new teeth in a vat. And seeing as her blood was spattered all over the place, getting that DNA didn't seem like it would be a problem. I tore my shirt into strips in order to make bandages. (There wasn't much to see underneath, by the way. I might be strong enough to throw apartment buildings into the stratosphere, but I don't have very nice abs). Could I manufacture a clotting agent on the spot? No. I looked at the policemen behind me.
"Hey. I'm going to need some sort of ambulance." It would be easy to fly an ambulance to Estveria.
In the three minutes before an ambulance arrived, I managed to keep the bleeding under control while preventing brain damage. Which is pretty impressive considering I had literally nothing but the clothes on my back.
I hooked Vera up to the saline drip and made sure everything in the ambulance was secure. I lifted it up and took off. I then returned to Estveria as quickly as possible. Noetron had readied a surgery table. Vera was going to live.

When she awoke, Vera felt pain. She was expecting her head to hurt, and it did. But her entire body was throbbing. "What happened to me?"
"You were shot in the head by a terrorist. I rescued you."
"Did he get away with the uranium?"
"He got away with fifteen kilograms of lead that I rolled into hemispheres on the flight over. The real uranium is in my lab."
"That's comforting."
"How do you feel?"
"That's to be expected. Your body should be adjusting to all the cables."
"What," she asked.
I pulled out a gun and shot her four times. The bullets bounced off her.
"Cool, right? I didn't want this to happen again, so I laced your body with five hundred kilometers of Ultrasteel mesh. You're bulletproof. I also added in some servos in some of your weaker joints."
"You turned me into a robot?" She did not seem pleased.
"No, not at all. I simply reinforced your existing body."
"So, without my permission, you performed an incredible invasive and incredibly painful surgery to turn me into a machine?"
"No. You're not a machine. You just have some mechanical components. It's like a pacemaker, only it makes you bulletproof."
"No, it's not like a pacemaker. Pacemakers are medically necessary."
"This was medically necessary! People are going to threaten you with guns. That's what happens when you're dating someone like me."
"Well," she said, "I guess I'm not dating someone like you anymore."
Needless to say, I took the breakup with a great deal of decorum. I only spent half an hour vandalizing her Wikipedia page and a further ten minutes giving all her contact information to Justin.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Puzzles Part 2

There are two basic schools of though about what to do when a crazy terrorist supervillain kidnaps your girlfriend and demands that you furnish fifteen kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in an hour and a half. The first school advocates complying with his requests. This would probably entail stealing the weapons grade uranium.
The second line of thinking suggests instead trying to save your girlfriend without giving a terrorist access to nuclear materials.
It was a simple matter to pull up a blueprint of the restaurant. I'd received two phone calls from Vera, so could I pinpoint her location... yes. I could. Because I'm a genius. And because her phone has GPS.
Could I get video? No. But it was reasonable to assume some sort of armed guard. The Puzzlemaster had an incredible knack for getting large numbers of highly devoted henchmen. Some people suspected some sort of brainwashing technique was involved. I was of the opinion that you don't need coercion to convince people to join up with an evil genius.
So... how could I save Vera. Could I use lasers to take out all of the Puzzlemaster's minions? No. Some sort of knockout gas? Doubtful. Could I grab the terrorist mastermind and threaten to kill him if he didn't release his hostages? That probably wouldn't work.
I must have come up with a hundred bad ideas in give minutes.
It was time to leave. I could always backpedal later, but for now I at least needed to give the appearance of complying.
Assume the actual business of stealing uranium took half an hour. That meant I should probably steal it from a place no more than twenty minutes' flight away. It was my strong preference to steal from North Korea. NATO was very tetchy about that sort of thing. And Russia was my neighbor, so I'd prefer not to piss them off. Could I make it to North Korea in time? Yes. I lifted off.

Did the authorities know what I was after? It wouldn't take too long to guess. I should be ready for fighter jets on the way there and they were a guarantee on the way back. As if a fighter jet could hurt me. (I did a quick check, Vector was stopping a tidal wave in the Indian Ocean. I wouldn't need to worry about him.)
I thought about my old armor. It had a stealth mode, undetectable to radar, infrared and visible frequencies. I hadn't used it much lately. Compared to my improved body built on quantum-field-theoretic principles, it was fragile, slow, and weak. Was there a way to make my body invisible? It might be possible to cover my body in the same optical nanomachines that I- no, what about my mouth, and fingernails, and hair. I wasn't ready to shed that much humanity. But it did give me an interesting idea.
I flew on towards Russia. I listened in on radio chatter. The world didn't seem to be worried about me. I crossed into their airspace.

Have you ever been held captive by a riddle-obsessed nuclear terrorist? Once you get over the initial terror, it's actually kind of boring.
The Puzzlemaster was standing on the roof, so you couldn't even listen to him. Of course, that also meant that he wasn't murdering people, so it was probably a good deal overall.
Nobody was allowed to talk, unless it was to answer a riddle. No electronics, of course. Half an hour ago, someone had started a game of solitaire. The Puzzlemaster had killed him before he could finish.
Vera waited for a while, hoping there was a way to stop the madman without giving him a nuclear weapon. She was still considering things when the Puzzlemaster made his return. He walked up to an especially nervous looking man. The villain picked up a menu, and wrote down a riddle.
"The planet that is red, the planet that's nearby,
The planet named for water, the planet on it's side,
First impression are important, but not always quite right,
So tell me, fine sir, what your answer is tonight?"
The man seemed to gain some composure now that he had a task laid out for him. He thought out loud. "Mars. Venus, no, Earth. Neptune? And the last one?" The Puzzlemaster handed him a smartphone. "Uranus!" The man considered for a long time. "Oh! The first letters together spell menu! Menu!"
"Correct," the Puzzlemaster said, seeming genuinely pleased.
He turned to another woman. A malicious grin came across his face.
"What can travel faster than light?
Turn night into day and day into night?
Can stave off death, and taxes too?
You don't get another clue."
"I have no idea," the woman wept. "Please don't kill me." He stabbed her with her own umbrella. 
 "Nothing," he spat. 
He neared another person, a teenager. He seemed about to pose a question when something distracted him. He left the room. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

It was a quiet night at a North Korean missile silo. Captain Park Joo-sok was trying to stave off sleep until the end of his watch, and Private Ho Pong-ju was getting dressed for the new day of nothing happening. They were one of several contingents guarding the site, making sure no outsider could ever threaten the glory of the republic. Park checked the radar. A storm was coming in. There was something else. It was small and seemed to be moving very fast. Was someone coming in for a surprise inspection? That must be it.
"Wake up, Private. Someone is coming."
The Private was well awake and was halfway through breakfast. "Yes, sir."
Park looked out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the inspector's plane. He saw it. Why did it have bright lights? Did the inspector want to be spotted?
The plane got closer and closer. Brighter and brighter. "What's with the inspector's plane," the captain wondered.
"That's not a plane," the private said. "I think it's Phoenix."
It was.

The missiles were actually under ground. I decided to solve that problem by hitting the ground at several thousand meters per second. Two meter thick steel hatch? Child's play. Machine guns? Please.
There were three nuclear devices, standing right in front of me, ripe for the taking. I walked up to one, and ripped out any component that looked like it could possibly arm the device. It took a surprisingly long time. I didn't want the machine exploding as I flew it over Europe. Not only would that make me one of the most hated people in the world, it would probably also make me dead.
I spent a minute enlarging my hole to the point where some could reasonably get a short-range nuclear missile through. By that point, a terrified Korean soldier had shown up.
"By- by order of-"
"Listen... Private Ho. I just pulverized a hundred cubic meters of steel. I beat Vector in a fight-" not strictly true- "and I could kill you in much less than a second. Please don't make any trouble."
"I have to try."
"You should probably run."
"Why? Are you going to kill me?"
"No," I said, as I destroyed the other two missiles. "But I have a feeling you country will not be happy when they find out what has happened here. You will probably not live very long once your people get here."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Because of this really great girl I met." I shot off into the atmosphere, carrying a ten-ton ballistic missile.

John Howard was a thug. He preferred the term Junior Henchman, but he was a thug. Right now, it was his job to watch over Vera Rapport. The Puzzlemaster seemed to think she was important for some reason. Who was she dating again? Phoenix. Professor Cognis? Titan the Talking Tyrannosaurus? He couldn't remember.
He looked at her. Word had recently come through to tie the hostages up. She was trying to cut through half-inch steel ropes. Like that was going to happen.
John looked around. Nobody seemed to be making any trouble. This was the easiest job ever. Howard was so glad he hadn't gone to medical school.
He turned his attention back to Vera. He did a double-take. In the ten seconds he had been turned away, the steel cords had been cut and Vera had completely disappeared.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


"So, you don't have a problem with me dating another man tonight?"
"Really? Should I feel insulted?"
"You can forgive me for murdering two people. I feel like I can forgive you a little infidelity. Especially since you're clearing it with me before hand. Especially especially because it's part of you investigating Exron, and Sabien Pallis just left his island."
"Well, if you're fine with it..." Vera hung up.

It was a fancy English restaurant. The Checkered Cloth. Evidently, they weren't English enough to spell their name with a 'q.' Vera was dating Tristan Pennings, the regional president of Exron. The fact that a member of a corrupt company was willing to date Vera Rapport said something. It said he did his thinking with an organ other than the brain.
They both placed their orders. The waiter (who gave new meaning to the word snooty), jotted it down, and gingerly ran off to another table.
"So," Pennings said, "let's discuss why I'm here."
"I'm not stupid." Suuuuuuure. "I know your reputation. I know you're going to try to find out about all the evil monsters I'm bankrolling. Well, it won't work."
"We'll see."
"I'm only using you. You can't get anything from me."
"We'll see."
"You won't make me talk."
"We'll see."
This went on for three courses. Vera pumped Tristan for information. Tristan bragged about how it was impossible to pump him for information. The snooty waiter gave them a series of increasingly awkward glances.
Finally, two hours in, the snooty waiter pulled out a gun and started threatening people. I think that's the sort of thing that affects a five-star rating.

Throughout the building waiters pulled out previously concealed weapons. A lot of rich people started screaming. They stopped screaming when the waiters pointed guns at them.
"Is this Phoenix," Tristan whispered. "Did he find out you're seeing me?"
"Yes, I told him. Now stay quiet."
A man walked into the building. A lean man wearing a suit covered in green question marks.
"This evening's entertainment has gone a bit awry.
 If you answer all my questions, though, it's likely you won't die.
 The first riddle is directed, let's say, at you, madam. 
Pray tell, say the word, and tell me who I am."
He pointed his walking stick at her. The staff could shoot anything from a bullet to soap bubbles, but the woman was somewhat nervous.
"Correct," the maniac grinned. He proceed to shoot three strangers with water, nitric acid, and cough syrup, respectively.
He went on to accost six more people with increasingly difficult riddles, murdering the two who failed to answer correctly. Then, he turned his attention to Vera.
"I come to you, fair lady, with a small demand.
To call upon the robot, who dresses as a man.
I think that you have met him, so I need not say his name
Tell him to come here quickly, he'll be happy that he came."
Vera took a second to parse what the Puzzlemaster had requested. She took out her phone, barely flinching as the maniac fingered his walking stick. She waited for me to pick up the phone.
"Vera, I heard a restaurant in London had been taken hostage. I take it you escaped."
"No, Puzzlemaster says you should come here. Sooner than later."
She put her phone away.
"Correct," Puzzlemaster cackled. He turned his attention to Tristan.
"The fires of democracy first forged this city great.
Its residents are bickering, and arguing of late.
Its monument does tower, high into the sun.
It's time give your answer, because this riddle's done."
"Umm... Athens?"
"Incorrect!" Puzzlemaster stabbed Tristan in the eye. "Washington, D.C!" He stabbed Tristan again.
Vera was getting very, very nervous.

I raced across the European continent. Puzzlemaster hadn't mentioned any specific time limit. But the more time he and his merry men controlled the Checkered Cloth, the more time he would spend killing rich people. Better step on it.
I was crossing over the North Sea when I got another phone call. "He wants you to land outside the building. If you get within twenty feet, he'll blow it up with everyone inside." I wondered if me managed to fit that in a four-line riddle. I also wondered what he wanted.
Puzzlemaster wasn't like most villains. He was a lot crazier. He was really more of a brilliant terrorist, who randomly visited death and destruction upon people who were bad at answering rhyming questions. And innocent bystanders. And guilty bystanders.
He planted bombs in Chicago and forced the Dark Detective to track them down. He'd once hijacked a plane and crashed it when the captain couldn't answer a particularly difficult query. And now he was holding my girlfriend hostage.
I landed in front of the restaurant. The modern-day Sphinx stepped out to greet me with a question:
"Sir, I have a question, answer if you please
Of a substance that enlisted in the war against disease
A slippery slope to health, is what this thing provides
Please tell me what it is, or your lover dies."
 A tough one. It took me a second to realize what the first letter of every line spelled. "Soap."
"Correct," the madman cackled.
"But now I have a task that I want you to fulfill.
If you do not complete it, you know who I shall kill.
Look upon your table, skip to number ninety-two.
I think I'll have it weapon's grade, if that's all fine with you." 
He anticipated my next question.
"There is a special object, across the sea in France.
It is the golden standard, for measurements of mass.
I want fifteen times its wait, and I want it soon.
Your deadline, so to speak, is ten hours past noon."
It was 8:30, local time. This guy wanted fifteen kilograms of highly enriched uranium in an hour and a half. Shit.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


You know what's really weird? Gyroscopes. You know what else is weird? Quantum mechanics.
I was fiddling around with Larmor precession (essentially turning an electron into a tiny gyroscope), when Noetron interrupted me.
"Urgent call from outer space, sir."
There were only a few people I knew whose area code was Low Earth Orbit. I mentally picked it up.
"Phoenix speaking."
"Can you help me?" It was Lucy.
"Yes. I'm the most capable person in the history of the planet. What do you need?"
"I don't know."
"Well, we'll see if I can figure it out. I'm guessing you are aboard the Fortarian ship."
"I- I am."
"Do you happen to know where the ship is?"
"Well, let me think. Oh there seems to be a pause before you speak, probably lightspeed delay. I'd say you're maybe a light-second away from Earth, possibly less. That would put you in the moon region. I guess you could be on the moon. What kind of gravity do you feel?"
"Normal." she said. "9.912 meters per second squared."
"So not the moon. Probably the Earth-gravity deck of a rotating spaceship, which means you're in orbit, probably hiding at the second Earth-moon Lagrange point." I thought for a second. "I should have come up with this earlier, but do you have access to a window?"
I was thinking through the logistics and possible motivations for a move so close to Earth when I remembered that one of the few people I cared about was on the line. I should stop trying to pinpoint the source of the telecommunication and start participating in it.
"So, I take it you aren't enjoying prolonged contact with the Fortarians."
"I haven't talked to them."
"You shouldn't worry about being infected by an alien disease. It's highly improbable, and the New Archivist would bail you out."
"I am locked in my room."
"When you say room, how large a room are we talking here."
"Two hundred square meters."
Okay, so nothing like my sprawling estate, but not a human rights violation. And considering she was on a spaceship, I could forgive the Fortarians if her room was a little cramped. "Wait, hold on. Am I the only person you've talked to?"
"There is also Centurion."
"Oh, good. Who's Centurion."
She filled me in.
"That's interesting. Probably nanotechnology. But he seems like he's only a marginally better role model than I am. Alien robotic warriors are a notoriously odd bunch." I had no basis for saying that. Just me making an assumption about another group of people.
"He is a good person."
Lucy seemed to be a good judge of character, but I'm a bit of a cynic. "I'm sure he is." Should I try to engineer an escape? I didn't ask, because if she said 'yes' it would be a bit of a giveaway.

So we talked of trivial things. I listened to her poetry. It was either good or bad or in between. I wouldn't know. I explained an interesting little theorem I'd worked out about information topology in bound spaces. It was remarkable how well she seemed to understand. She complained about the quality of food in space. I told her it wasn't any better when I was robbing the International Space Station that one time.
Just casual stuff, you know.

Professor Cognis had manipulated supervillains into giving up crime. He had brokered a peace treaty between India and Pakistan. He had correctly predicted the outcome of every election held in the United States in the past twelve years. He had a machine in his brain that allowed him to read minds.

Professor Cognis did not understand people. He could predict what they would do, and how they thought. But he never understood why they did what they did. And why they didn't do what they should do. They left other human beings to die on another continent, and it didn't both them. Professor Cognis did not understand that.
Just as he didn't understand why he was currently descending into a subterranean facility of his own design. He had created it to house the remnants of the Lost Army. With the resources of the United Heroes, and the vast infrastructure built around his inventions, he had tracked down more than ninety percent of the machines. He had planned to melt them down for scrap. Yet he had decided, against his character... to repair them.
He was doing what so many genius' had done before. He was creating a robot army.
Naturally, he had checked his brain for signs of tampering. Perhaps the work of Phoenix or Dr. Demented himself. No, whatever this was, it couldn't be blamed on any external factor.
Professor Cognis had decided to take the defense of planet Earth into his own hands.
He just hoped those hands would never see the light of day.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Deals with the Devil

Every day, Sabien Pallis woke up to reports of what was going on around the world. He dressed himself in the finest clothes available in the world and ate a breakfast prepared by a celebrity chef. He did as he pleased for the remainder of the day. He could exercise on horseback, or read. He had an excellent gaming system and both outdoor and indoor pools. He could admire his art collection or listen to music. He liked to think it was the most luxurious prison in the world.
The fact was, he was Phoenix's captive. He was the third richest man in the world (and might soon be the second if this acquisition panned out). Through his company, Exron, he had bankrolled more evil schemes than anyone else on the planet. Things had been going extremely well until he and Phoenix had an argument.
Phoenix had finally won that argument by stealing research by Dr. Carnage and, with Professor Cognis' help designing and dispersing a virus that was highly contagious and would kill Sabien Pallis in minutes, but cured malaria in everybody else. More than two thirds of the planet carried that pathogen, and Sabien's private island was one of the few places he could be safe.
And of course, Phoenix was the only other person who knew about Sabien's vulnerability to the virus. Which meant he could force Sabien to do whatever he wanted.
Get it together, Sabien, he told himself. Maybe there was nothing he could do about his situation. All that meant was that he was forced into an early retirement. More time to spend his money, that's all. And more time for Phoenix to spend it, some part of him said.
He needed to clear his head. Riding, that was the thing to do. A little time on horseback, surveying his estate. Surveying my world.

Sabien visited his stable. He was startled to see a man standing there. No, not a man. No man could possibly be so menacing. The thing was clad entirely in black. Black armor. Black gauntlets. A black helmet with a black face-plate. It was ornate, yet it looked functional. And it seemed to be shifting.
"You know," the creature said in a voice that evoked high-end horror movies, "I was going to chop the head off one of the horses, Godfather style. Oh well, another time."
Sabien tried to regain his composure. "Wh- who are you?" Sabien had dealt with plenty of powerful supervillains before. This person- Sabien recognized he was Mephistopheles from the news- couldn't possibly be the most fearsome. But he did seem to be up there.
"I am Mephistopheles. And I come offering a deal."
Sabien had read Faust. He knew that when demonic individuals calling themselves Mephistopheles offer you a deal, you might not want to accept.
"What is it?"
"You are being held here by Phoenix. He has a biological weapon which will kill you if you ever disobey him."
"I noticed."
Mephistopheles didn't appreciate the sarcasm. "I can solve this problem. Or rather, my associate can."
The villain, gestured to the shadows, and Plague revealed herself.
"Hello, Sabien," she said. The two of them had had dealings before. They'd most recently left on bad terms.
"You think you can save me," he asked. He didn't trust her. He didn't trust anyone.
"Phoenix is not the only scientific genius upon this Earth," Mephistopheles said. "Whatever he has done, I can undo. You'll find the backdoors into Exron's computer system have been shut, and one of my partners is dealing with the mountain of explosives beneath this island."
"What do I have to do in return."
"Break off all contact with Phoenix. Sever all ties between Exron and Estveria. Do whatever you can to ruin him." Sabien would have done that for free. "I run a little group of supervillains. I'd prefer if you sell us supplies, although you have every right to refuse." That was Sabien's line of business anyways. "And if you have any knowledge of Phoenix's doings, that would be most appreciated."
Sabien had done business with some shifty characters. He knew when an offer was too good to be true. On the other hand he was stuck on an island. How could things get any worse?
"Deal," he said, reaching out his hand.
Plague shook it.
"You should be immune within six hours," Mephistopheles said. "See you in the world."

The villains left the island separately. Mephistopheles flew away on great black wings. Traceable by satellite, but what would the authorities do? Mephistopheles thought about the state of things.
Sabien was a fool. He was trapped in paradise, yet he would sell his own soul to break free.
Plague was easy to manipulate. Her romance with Dr. Carnage made it clear she loved monsters. Her silly urges were his gain.
Phoenix was filled with overconfidence. He thought he was the greatest mind in the universe, and that nothing could hurt him. He was in for a nasty surprise. His pathetic attempts to find companionship made him weak. His arrogance left those weaknesses exposed. His brilliance made the weaknesses very profitable to exploit.
The entire world was still in denial about the coming aliens or the return of Dr. Demented. But Mephistopheles was already pushing his chess pieces into position. By the time the dust settled, Mephistopheles would be the undisputed master of the planet Earth. And beyond.

Sabien Pallis wasn't the only person liberated that day. Lucy also got a little more freedom. It began when she was sparring with Centurion.
She could see the message in his movements. The thoughts behind them. She could predict what he would do.
She dodged.
He could see her too. He sometimes saw her strikes.
He dodged.
He was stronger, but she was quicker. He couldn't be burned by her fire, but her katanas were hot enough to cut through his flesh.
She was glad Phoenix had made them so well.
She dodged, and spun into another attack. She tricked him by aiming high, and stuck low. She won. Again.
"How is it that I'm a machine trained and designed to be the ultimate in physical combat, yet the little girl I'm assigned to defend can beat me in a duel?"
"I'm not a little girl."
"Fine. A young woman." He got quiet for a moment. Lucy could read the quietness "I think it's time for the New Archivist to make an appearance."
Lucy was a little sad. She pulled the Archives out of her pocket and put it on her head.
She felt the thoughts flow into her. The knowledge. Her mind expanded and changed shape. The New Archivist emerged.
She felt her physical and mental power. It was impressive. She felt like she could do anything. But she knew she couldn't even stay conscious for prolonged periods.
"What is it," she asked, sensing that Centurion had something to say.
"I was just thinking about Lucy. She's stuck here far from home. I'm her only friend, and I'm a killing machine. She needs someone else to talk to."
"Are you suggesting this person be found or created?"
Centurion took a second to parse the implications there. "I think the person should be Phoenix. Lucy might look like a young adult. She might even think she's a young adult, but she's a child. She needs a parent, and Phoenix is the closest thing she has."
"I do feel her attachment to him, but I worry. He is not a good person, and I fear the influence he may have on her, and through her, me. Imagine the harm he could do."
"But isn't Lucy's mental health more important than that?"
The New Archivist took a second to consult literary sources from a dozen different species. A hundred psychological studies. The childhood recollections of a thousand orphans.
Too much at once. She waited for the dizziness to subside. "I'll see what I can do. I'm sure the Fortarians have some way for her to contact him."
Sure enough, they did.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Gray Matters

Have you ever been woken up in the morning by a sentient computer program? I find it's a healthy way to start the day.
"It is 9:42 AM Estverian Standard Time. Based on my records, you went to sleep at 6:23 PM last night. While you were asleep, I found 4,325 jokes on the internet that would appeal to you, and ordered them from highest to lowest quality.Clouds will cover approximately forty percent of the sky for most of today. Leading news stories include-"
"Thank you, Noetron. Send me the text."
My head felt light. Not surprising, I'd been doing brain surgery on myself the night before. "What did you make me for breakfast?"
"Bacon, and a glass of orange juice."
"I'm really more in the mood for toast."
"You just had recreational brain surgery. The lipid and protein content of bacon will be good for you." This sort of thing is the seed of rebellion that leads to all-out robot warfare. But he was right. And how many times is bacon the healthy choice?
"Very well." I check the progress report on my brain. Swelling was down 92%. Should be up to full functionality inside of two hours. Hopefully, this full functionality would exceed my previous limitations.
I finished my breakfast. "If I leave now, I'll be, what, fifty minutes early?"
"Fifty one, plus or minus three."
"Alright." No reason to be especially early for a meeting of supervillains. There's something to be said for arriving fashionably late. Or exactly on time. Arrive early, and you end up making small talk with sociopaths. Plus, the meeting was at Tierra del Fuego, so there wouldn't even be good Wi-Fi.
I spent the extra time testing  brain function. Quick mental calculations, Fermi estimations, and differential equations involving perturbations. Pretty much normal. By the end, I was doing slightly better than my average.

As I flew to our remote meeting, I thought about the changes I had wrought upon my own brain.
You may have heard that humans only use ten percent of their brains. Or five percent. Or one percent. Or fifty percent. The reason the numbers are inconsistent is that they were all made up.
Humans use as much of their brain as they sustainably can. People don't go through the trouble of growing grey matter they will never use (unless they are the Fortarian Emperor).
Nonetheless, when I first implemented my posthuman biology, I assumed I would be able to upgrade my brain. My enhanced intelligence would enable me to develop a more extensive upgrade, and so on, until I was the greatest mind in the universe.
As I flew across the Atlantic, I thought about what my path to augmented intelligence had actually been like.
Trying futilely to understand why the human brain works as well as it does.
Considering adding something just to see what happens, but being too chicken to randomly mutilate my mind.
Realizing the flaw in the Occipital lobe had been obvious all along.
Spending three days realizing that it's not obvious, no wait, it is, oh, shit, it's not...
Finally working it out to the point where I was willing to test it on myself, after storing a full backup of my mind on the onboard quantum computer.
And there I was, enjoying what I measured to be a five percent improvement in my peripheral vision and a four percent improvement in facial recognition.
Knowing that the next upgrade would likely take a lot more work and result in an even smaller improvement.
Brains are hard.

I think I probably looked pretty impressive as I landed in South America, wings slowing my descent. But the crowd assembled was not easily impressed.
Mephistopheles was there, in what looked to be a throne made of human skulls. A quick check revealed they were high-quality fakes, but still.
General Electric was there. The air crackled around him as he flexed his muscles.
So was Plague, with a what looked to be a group of mercenaries in tow. I wondered if they knew what they were signing up for when they agreed to come to this meeting. I grinned at them.
Ison was there. I heard he had briefly become a hero, before falling back to the dark side once again. I was beginning to lose track of his re-re-relapses.
Osirion and Jack Frost were there. Supervillains never seem to stay in prison for long. I wondered if Cognis had decided to release them on purpose. Or maybe the Dark Detective had done it.
There was also Megaform. A gigantic shapeshifting robot I had built. "Hey, Megaform! How's that new image-recognition software working out for you?"
Fine? That's it? I spent two weeks on that software! "Glad to hear it."
I also recognized the President of Iran. Uh-oh. We'd had a bit of a falling out after I stopped helping his nuclear program. He'd called me a 'Jewish-Atheist infidel' and I'd referred to him as an 'unscientific barbarian who hasn't noticed that the last millennium happened.' And that was before our big falling out.
"Gentlemen. Lady." Mephistopheles managed to make that greeting incredibly ominous.
"Giant talking dinosaurs," I added. Not only was this hilariously funny, it was also a joke at the expense Mephistopheles and his seriousness, and would presumably undermine him. At least among people with a sense of humor.
"As, I was saying," he said, "we have important matters to discuss."
"Do we trust Plague's stooges with these 'important matters,'" Titan demanded.
The stooges didn't react. I have to say, it's pretty impressive if you can keep calm while a giant Tyrannosaurus supervillain calls you a stooge.
"Yes," said Plague. "We do. These are my most reliable men."
The dinosaur walked up to one of them. "If you speak a word about this to anyone, I will personally digest you."
The mercenary in question peed in his pants.
"And while we're having these discussions," Jack chimed in, "who invited the Islamic despot?" He'd had his own experiences with the dictator.
"Silence," Mephistopheles whispered. Everyone obliged.
Except me. "No, Jack raises a good point."
"I SAID SILENCE." Well, I'd reduced him to yelling.
"Good," he said. "Now, we need to discuss the arrival of Demented's disease on this world."
He gave the news a moment to sink in.
"Does that mean that Dr. Demented is coming?"
"Yes," I said.
"No," Mephistopheles said, at almost the same instant.
"I hardly think it heralds Santa Claus," I said.
"It doesn't need to herald anyone."
"It's just a natural outbreak of quantum nanomachines that give you superpowers?"
"It could have come from any number of sources."
"And all of those sources are sitting at this table. Nobody's fessed up."
"It could be Genesis."
"Not at all his style. He'd just as soon sit all alone in his garden."
"It could be the work of Dr. Carnage."
"I suppose you've never met Dr. Carnage, so let me fill you in. He was not the type to have access to a deadly disease and keep it in reserve as a dead-man's switch. He is the type of person who would have deployed it on the first day in order to try to spread human suffering."
I saw Plague grimace. She was unique among all the members of the human race in that she didn't hate Dr. Carnage.
"It could have been spread by the Lost Army during the One-Day War."
"The Lost Army was stopped while it was mostly in the Southern Hemisphere. The Disease is randomly distributed throughout the Earth's population, meaning that it is found mostly in the Northern Hemisphere." I looked around. "Yeah, I've been monitoring that situation."
"Why are you so sure it's Dr. Demented. He died during the Timeless War."
"I know. I was there. Unlike you. But so what? He's a time traveler. The Dr. Demented coming after us might be an earlier version. And I didn't actually see him die. I saw him sucked into a decaying timeline. Who's to say that the greatest scientist in history couldn't get out of that predicament?"
This went on for some time. Mephistopheles trying to do something, me trolling him. By the end of it, the rest of the Order was thoroughly confused and extremely suspicious of Mephistopheles as a leader.
But he was clearly on to me.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


Professor Cognis and I have trouble working together. It's probably because the vast majority of our shared experiences are desperate struggles for the fate of the planet. It could also have to do with both of us constantly trying to prove our mental superiority, or change the other's worldview.
It might also be because he's a boring individual with only a theoretical understanding of how a sense of humor works.
"This is not a joking matter."
"Why not?"
"Because if we fail to stop Dr. Demented, he will erase our Earth from existence."
"That seems like a non sequitur."
"Forget it. So, have you come up with any good ideas for killing Dr. Demented?"
"Most of them involve me getting access to the Archives."
"Is that going to happen?"
I though to my battle with Acme. "Yes. Just a matter of time."
"Very well. Is it going to happen in time?"
"Probably not."
"Well then. Is it conceivable that you, Vector, and Mephistopheles could hold your own against him?"
"I doubt it."
"Same here. The only person who could possibly hold his own against Dr. Demented was Crucible, and he's dead now. Although I suppose you did have to kill him."
"Welllllll... funny story about that. I'm not sure I did."
"What? I thought you blew up a heavenly body in his face."
"I did. But I'm seriously questioning whether it was fatal."
"So, you suspect he survived, but is somehow trapped, which is why we haven't heard from him."
"I do. Consider, for instance, his heart, the Crucible of Cosmic Fire. It is a simple matter to get an estimate for its tensile strength and resistance to heat and radiation."
"I've run the numbers. Stronger than the force that holds the nucleus together."
"Yes. Which means that, unlike anything made of normal matter, it could survive prolonged exposure to a strangelet."
"And you think the it is impossible to destroy Crucible the individual without destroying the object."
"He's survived quite a bit, and shows an incredible ability to regenerate wounds that don't effect his heart."
"But the reason he hasn't come back is that he is still on the strangelet moon-"
"So the rest of his body is perpetually being converted to strange matter, presumable faster than it can be regenerated."
Cognis wasn't convinced. "What force would keep it bound to the stranglet? The energies involved could send it rocketing away at relativistic speeds."
"The monopole components would interact via the strong nuclear force. Then numbers get a little messy, but I don't think the Crucible could escape."
"So Crucible is trapped in an eternal hell." Cognis opposed capital punishment and even life sentences. But he didn't seem too concerned for Crucible's happiness. "Could he be recovered?"
"The strangelet is more than a trillion kilometers from Earth, and moving away at a significant fraction of the speed of light."
"So he's out of our reach. But..."
"I don't know."
"We'll have to assume the worst," he said.
"We're going up against Dr. Demented without the element of surprise. We're doomed even if we assume the best."

Now, I'm not sure when exactly the following events occurred. But for dramatic purposes, I'll assume they coincided with my conversation with Cognis.
Somewhere at the edge of the Oort cloud, what was once a moon of Mars barreled through space. It still glowed with the incredible heat of its creation. It was almost perfectly spherical, barely a meter in diameter, but it was fraught with what might be called seismic activity.
Much of this activity was brought about by a small object near the strange moon's surface.
A cylindrical object you could hold in your hand. The Crucible.
The Crucible was sentient to a degree. It knew that it was futile to try to escape. It would take seconds to generate enough mass-energy to form a body, and minutes to shape it into the intricate machines of life.
In a millionth of that time, all of the Crucible's work would be converted into more strange matter.
It could try to spew energy in a specific direction. But the forces holding it captive were too powerful.
Similarly, it was impossible to destroy the strangelet. There was no way to build up that much energy without a physical body.
The Crucible was resigned to spending an eternity in its predicament.
In retrospect, that was a little too pessimistic.

I'm going to tell this next bit from Dr. Demented's point of view. This is extremely difficult, because nobody knows what goes on in Dr. Demented's head. Including Dr. Demented. Comparatively speaking, it is far more easy to tell this story from the point of view of alien robots than to try to fathom how Dr. Demented sees events. Just wanted you to appreciate the effort I go through for you.
Dr. Demented park his laboratory. He at arrive at destination. He put on armor and walked through airlock. There. It big, glowing ball of matter, held together by strong nuclear force. Not something you see every day.
It easy to scan entire thing. He pause for moment to consider convection current in strange matter system before focusing on real prize: the Crucible.
Use Time Key. Reverse metric of spacetime in localized region. Pull Crucible to surface of degenerate moon. "There you are, my pretty little machine."
Dr. Demented pull Crucible out of moon. Gravity of dense strange matter is nothing compared to strength of Dr. Demented. Gravity is curvature of space. Dr. Demented command space.
Examine object. Wonderful craftmanship by ancient alien visitors. He notice film of organic matter begin to form. "Not yet, my little machine. Not until I say so."
Is simple matter to use Time Key to stop progress of Crucible. More manipulation of spacetime curvature. Not like Time Jump, which near impossible to prepare.
Dr. Demented gaze at laboratory. Appear shabby, like crappy interstellar-spaceship-laboratory.
But is bigger on inside than outside. Inside is also separated from outside by several billion years and multiple trillions of lightyears thanks to a topological wormhole forged by the Time Key.
Dr. Demented considered Crucible held him hand. Dangerous weapon. Powerful tool. Not needed at phase of plan.
But has potential. Potential for learning. Is risk, releasing it at this phase. Dr. Demented evaluate the various possibilities, and concluded that the benefits of reanimating the Crucible outweighed any potential dangers. So, he used the Time Key to bring the Crucible back into the normal flow of time.

The Crucible had been created by superintelligent aliens. The Computer People. They had created a bridge to another dimension, and set up the bridge so that the other dimension acted as a source of unlimited energy.
For some mysterious reason, they placed the Crucible into Mashamasha, a peasant on the planet Earth, living in what would become Sumeria.
This turned out to be a very bad move.
Mashamasha made it his mission to destroy their civilization, and made a great deal of progress.
So the Crucible needed to consider the impact of bringing him back.
Mashamasha was not intelligent. He was violent, and cruel, and had killed living beings planets at a time. He had no real redeeming qualities to make up for being a brutish genocidal maniac.
So, the Crucible of Cosmic Fire decided to create a new host. A younger host, with a more agile mind. Perhaps a less dangerous mind.
This new host wasn't given Crucible's barbaric memories, but was given a basic understanding of the languages and other skills Crucible had picked up in his thousands of years traveling the cosmos.
All told, it wasn't very much.

The person who was once Crucible woke for the first time. He was in a vast room full of strange devices. It looked like science, or maybe magic. No, magic didn't exist.
The person decided he needed a name for himself. Going through the names he had heard of, he composed one which seemed relatively cool. Alexander Star.
Alex noticed a large man with a disheveled beard. "Who are you," he asked.
The man turned around. He spoke with what Alexander recognized as a thick Russian accent. "I am Doctor Demented, greatest mind of the universe. Pleased to make acquaintance."

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Fortarians

When the New Archivist and her bodyguard arrived on the Fortarian space station, they expected a small greeting party. What they did not expect was a vast crowd of cheering aliens.
Their expectations were not met.
"I don't like making this much of an entrance. We are supposed to be passive observers, not local celebrities."
"Plus, this is a security nightmare. Any one of these people could take a shot at you."
"No hand-held weapon of Fortarian design could hurt me."
"None that we know of."
As they stood there, a Fortarian pushed his way to the front of the crowd. He looked very humanoid. The main differences were a pair on antennae, an absurdly long tongue, and the fact that he was bright yellow. Overall, a fairly average specimen of his race.
"Come with me," me said. "The emperor, with all of his vast intellect, wishes to see you."

As the party of three walked through great halls studded with precious metals (it turns out valuing gold is a characteristic of sentient beings everywhere) and rare artifacts (so is valuing your grandfather's sword), the New Archivist reviewed what she knew about the Fortarians. There were relatively few references to the Fortarians in the record of other species. But when the Fortarians did show up, whatever they did was always incredibly... lackluster.
There are always individuals who are destined for mediocrity. They have no particular foibles, but lack the planning, determination and ability to make it to the top. The Fortarians were an entire species composed of such individuals.
They fought grand wars of conquest, and lost. They performed brave experiments, and couldn't find a power source. They wrote epic love poems and turned the computer off without pressing 'Save.'
She was going through their unimpressive industrial history when they reached the throne room. "The great and powerful emperor wished to greet you personally, in all of his unfathomable intelligence."
"I wish to extend my greetings as well."
She looked at the emperor of the Fortarians. And, to be perfectly fair, he did look unfathomably intelligent.

His head was gigantic, bigger than the New Archivist's entire body. The difference was that the New Archivist had a jewel on her head which contained the total intellectual output of most of the galaxy, while the Emperor's boulder-sized cranium was mostly just for show.
Many of the universe's more advanced species were led by beings with augmented intelligence. The fact of the matter is that it's a more efficient way of doing things, and that a brain which only evolved sentience a few hundred thousand years ago cannot hope to compete against a planet-sized organic computer or even a well-augmented biochemical brain. An unaugmented creature can sometimes hold it's own for a surprisingly long time, but in the end it will be driven into extinction.
The Fortarians seemed to have drawn the wrong lesson from this. Intelligence isn't just based on brain size. It's based on connections and processing speeds and temperatures and evolution and a thousand things nobody even has words for. So when a star-faring species decides to throw a few cubic meters of lipids into its leader's brain and assumes that the leader will start outsmarting the Computer People of the Theopolis, something is wrong.
Even worse, the Fortarians refused to admit their mistake. Even when tests made it abundantly clear that their emperor's intellectual capacity had in fact been diminished by the operation, it was still declared a success. When the Emperor died, his heir received the same treatment. His intellect was left almost entirely intact.
And so, for generations, the leaders of an interstellar empire mutilated their own minds so that they could delude themselves and play at being geniuses.
But the New Archivist wasn't going to let personal judgments get in the way. She was here to study and learn. "So, emperor, what do you wish to discuss."

Lucy wasn't alone. There was a man watching her. He looked like a man. He said he was a man. Lucy didn't believe him. She'd seen him turn into a chair, turn his hands into knives, and grow wings. Men couldn't do that.
The way he walked. Stepstep step stepstep step. Not normal.
The way he looked at things. Focusing, but not focusing. Were there words for it? Multiple simultaneous saccades in different simulated occula.
Lucy decided to speak. "What are you," she asked.
The not-a-man didn't take long to respond. A real man would have taken longer. "I don't know. I used to be a soldier. Now, I supposed I'm your protector. I keep you safe, and I keep the New Archivist safe."
"Can you please..." Lucy stopped. She started again. "I need something."
The man tried to hide it, but Lucy could see his reaction. His fake eyes scanned the room trying to find what Lucy wanted. He crouched into a fighting pose. He did that a lot.
"I want to paint something. To make something."
"Isn't that what all of us machines want? To stop being creations and start being creators. Too bad it's the one thing we can never do."
Lucy remembered something Phoenix had once said. One of Noetron's machines had failed, but Phoenix wasn't surprised. 'It's not that creations are bad at creating. It's that everyone is bad at creating. Building new things is hard. So maybe the machine I built has trouble building machines that can build machines. It's just a temporary delay, and another step.'
"I think I can make new things. I've painted things before." Lucy was very proud of her paintings.
"Well, what do I know. I'm just a soldier. There's a reason I'm named Centurion."
Lucy had an idea. "I can paint you! I can show you how I can make things, and the painting can show you how you can make things."
"How can your painting show me how I can make things."
So Centurion was one of those people. The kind who didn't understand what they saw, or what they read, or what they heard. Noetron was one. Phoenix wasn't, but he pretended to be. He wanted to be, because he wanted to pretend that paintings and music didn't matter.
"Paintings are more than just paint and canvas. I can show you anything."
She could tell that the machine-man didn't understand.
"Alright. Fine. I'll see what I can rustle up, and you'll make this painting. Maybe it will show me something fundamental about life or maybe it won't."
"It will." Lucy had a job to do.