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.