As the universe draws to an end, someone’s got to lock up and turn out the lights. That man is Joe Eschaton. Last Closing Time, God left Joe with the Big Book of Universal Loose Ends, and Joe decided to start with making the Imperiator Fraztrinique the Eighteenth pay his bar tab.
Paying The Tab
“I believe that it is your human brain organ that you are out of,” Imperiator Fraztrinique the Eighteenth says to Joe.
Joe is not out of his mind, nor is he deterred in any way by Fraz’s implication. He needles the blue alien by repeating what he just said. “We’re at last call. You’ve got to settle your tab before I can serve you.”
Fraz starts to sputter out of both of his mouths, though he’s not saying anything in English from either of them. After letting the Imperiator dangle on the end of his metaphoric string for a moment, Joe pours a glass of the cheap stuff and hands it to the alien.
Terri, who’s watching the interaction with a trace of amusement, nods.
“This one’s on me, so we can talk, okay?” Joe says.
Fraz isn’t thrilled about the idea, but he takes the drink and starts sipping it from his lower mouth. Finally, he’s calmed down enough from his indignation to communicate properly with Joe.
“Never in the history of the Blessed Empire of the Bichordian Directive has such an insult gone unacknowledged! Your filthy human mouth dares to deny the Imperiator his liquid entertainments?”
Joe points to the clock. It’s still tolling, and he knows Fraz can feel it. Anyone in the bar can feel it. It’s such a bad, ominous clock.
Fraz sort of looks around the clock, the alien-to-clock equivalent of looking at the bridge of someone’s nose instead of eye to eye. It’s a telling thing, though, because usually Fraz is all about getting in your face.
Joe takes the momentary distraction to reach down underneath the bar and pull up a cardboard box full of slips of paper ranging from fresh white to classic beige to antediluvian yellow. They’re receipts. Written in marker on the side of the box is “F-18.”
“This,” Joe says to the Imperiator of the Blessed Empire of the Bichordian Directive, “is your tab.”
“And it is guaranteed by the Bichordian Empire!” Fraz harmonizes badly. “An agreement is had by you and me! An Imperiator who carries base monies on his person? Unheard of! Insulting! Where is your foolish pink human trust?”
“Answer to that is on our human base money, Fraz. ‘In God We Trust.’ And he just left.”
Fraz turned to Terri for assistance, but the waitress shrugs and nods.
“Now, let me explain something here, Imperiator,” Joe says. “No bar since the days of the Television Signal Utopias has ever, ever run a tab overnight. Back when the stench mines on the bottom side of this rock were still operating, I’d sometimes let the guys run a line of credit until payday, and even then, they cashed their check here.”
“This is a wild incorrectness! For tens upon thousands of tens of your imprecise human years have I drank here upon your credit!”
Joe nods, and there’s a bit of wistfulness to the smile he gives Fraz. “Yes, you sure have. And you’ve insulted my planet and my species and forgotten to tip me and I can’t even describe what I have to do to clean the bathrooms when you leave.”
“The bodily processes of the ultimately superior Bichordial race are without peer!” Fraz says without the slightest hint of irony. Terri giggles and whispers “peer” under her breath. Joe shoots her a what-are-you-nine-years-old? glare.
“You know,” Joe says, slowly pulling receipts out of the box and stacking them in one perfectly lined-up pile. “I can’t say much about the biology of the Bichordian race. But there was a time that they ruled almost forty percent of the universe. You know how they did it?”
“Of course I know how!” Fraz burbles. “I was Imperiator of the Bichordian Empire! We had a method of insuring complete compliance from every one of our member galaxies!”
Terri hasn’t heard this story, so her look of rapt interest is genuine. Joe, on the other hand, is humoring Fraz, just standing there on the other side of the bar, stacking receipts.
“Many attempts have inferior races made to conquer worlds and stars and entertainment networks and philosophical arguments, but none have ever achieved the success rate of the Blessed Directive!” Fraz orates, gesticulating mightily as he does. “No might of arm, or two arms, or even three arms could compare! No dogma or ethos or bestselling self-help book was as embraceable as our law!”
He’s really getting into it here. His face is already blue, but if it wasn’t, it would be now.
“Yep,” Joe agrees. “No one said no to the Bichordians.”
“And yet what is it you say to my simple request for alcoholic satisfaction?”
“I don’t think that means what you think it means,” Terri whispers.
Joe has started a second pile.
“Let me tell you a story, Fraz,” Joe says. His tone is serious enough that Fraz doesn’t even bluster about using his complete nomenclature.
“Once upon a time, I lived on a planet that had a lot of stuff on it that other people wanted. Space ships came, they took over our planet. Worked us like slaves. Few years later, we fought them off. After that, some more ships came. They said they were more civilized, wanted to buy our stuff. A lot of money floated around, but in the end, we just worked like slaves for money.”
“They’re called employees, boss,” Terri says. Joe ignores her.
“Anyhow, people kept coming. We had a lot of stuff. It wasn’t a big planet, so it wasn’t like we could fight off space armadas. Usually what happened was after we got conquered, someone else came along with a snappy cult or a fervor to blame someone and everyone on my planet got riled up and things ended badly.”
“Dare you to imply that the great Imperiator Fraztrinique the Eighteenth invaded your silly planet of the all-important material you name ‘stuff?'”
“Actually,” Joe says, “you did. It had been a bad few years, we had been under the thumb of the Ungud Syndicate, crime lords who had some kind of addictive pop music that they used to keep everyone docile and unnaturally rhythmic. Suddenly there were giant blue globs–thousands of them–in the sky telling the Unguds to get out because we were now part of the Blessed Empire of the Bichordian Directive. The Unguds certainly knew who you were, because they cleared out immediately.
“We were all pretty much resigned to life under another empire, when the Imperiator broke into our transmissions and laid out the law. ‘You’re under our rule now,’ he said. ‘And our rule is a simple one. Live your lives.'”
“This is our law,” Fraz agrees. “The only Directive. Live as you wish.”
Joe has made four piles out of the receipts, and the box is almost empty.
“Lasted about twenty years on my planet,” Joe says, stacking the piles on top of each other crosswise. “Twenty years no one bothered us. We didn’t have easy lives, but they were ours. Anyway, I remembered that Imperiator years later when you first came to my bar. Even though you waved your fancy rings around and told tales of the Blessed Empire at the top of your lungs, I knew the Bichordians hadn’t had an empire for centuries. Still, when it did, you did right by my people, so I decided to run you a tab.”
“And now it is due?” Fraz asks. He’s confused, not sure where Joe is going with this.
“Yep, it’s last call. All debts have got to be paid before this show can end.” Joe picks up the stack of receipts in one hand, holds it in his hand like he’s weighing it. After a second, he types a number into the bar’s Universal Currency device. It’s a really, really, really, really long number. Even Fraz, who drank enough to make that number so long is agape at how many reallys long it is.
“And this you expect me to pay, despite knowing the shameful secret of the Blessed Empire of the Bichordial Directive? I repeat again, you and your brain have parted company!”
Without answering, Joe reaches into the back pocket of his jeans and pulls out his wallet. From it, he removes a black plastic card and slides it through the UC device. Green letters appear on the screen that simply read “Transaction Approved.”
“All debts have to be paid,” Joe says, and reaches out a hand. Fraz fumbles for a moment, unsure which of his right arms to use, but finally he picks one and shakes Joe’s hand.
“You are the least unpleasant being whose loose skin is covered with noxious oils that I have met, Joe Eschaton.”
“Thanks, Fraz. But now it’s time to go.” The drink in Fraz’s hand that he’s been slowly nursing is empty.
“Go? Go where?” Fraz asks, gesturing with all four arms to the universe around him.
Joe shrugs. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” he says, and points to the restroom hall with his thumb. “There’s a back way out.”
Without another word, Imperiator Fraztrinique the Eighteenth of the Blessed Empire of the Bichordian Directive sets down the empty glass and heads out the back door.
“That…” Terri says, eyes wide with admiration, “That’s the nicest thing–”
“Oh bloody hell!” Joe suddenly yells looking at the UC device. “I forgot to add on a tip!”
© 2013 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.