Last week on Closing Time, the ancient war between the Klyth and the Nepthli was rekindled when Kharnyvor, war-god of the dead race of Klyth encountered a Nephthli cultural storage robot. Now Joe’s bar is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of reactivated Nepthli robots about to engage with the risen ghosts of the Klyth dead.
The Klyth/Nepthli War (Three of Three)
It’s happening everywhere, but the best seats for the battle are in what’s left of Joe’s bar.
Joe and Terri and a few of the remaining customers are sitting down at a table near the shorn edge of the floor where Kharnyvor atomized it. Joe is feeling particularly low at this point, not only because of the missing half-a-bar, but because he hadn’t been able to do anything to forestall the resurgence of the Klyth/Nepthli War.
And what a war it was! In the black cosmos visible through the bar-sized opening, fiery ghosts battle ancient robots. At ground zero, in the cloud of ex-bar wreckage, the god of the Klyth clashes with a mile-high war mecha powered by a city’s worth of dead souls.
“War,” sighs Joe. “What is it good for?”
“Well,” Terri offers, “sometimes it’s necessary to remove unjust regimes from power.”
“Historically, it’s often spurred technological development,” came the voice of Mister Splixx from the portable laser breathalizer he had been living in since surviving the karaoke machine.
“I’m going to lead my armies against the one-eyed Antichrist, Masih ad-Dajjal, in a final war to unite humanity,” offers the Madhi.
Joe sighs and looks at the Doom Clock.
“We don’t have time for this,” he says. “The only reason they’re even fighting this stupid war is…” Joe trails off, a distant look in his eyes.
“Woo!” Terri cheers. “That’s his I’ve-got-an-idea look.”
“It looks very much like his did-I-forget-to-lock-the-bar look,” Madhi says.
“Mister Splixx,” Joe asks. “Can you get the attention of the first robot guy? Tell him I need to ask him something?”
“I do not think he will be interested in answering your questions, Mister Eschaton.”
“Tell him I have beer,” Joe says.
Two minutes later one of the millions of shiny specks from the panorama of galactic battle breaks off and moves into view as it approaches the open side of the bar. The hat gives it away as the robot who started this whole thing.
“What can this cultural storage and projection unit do for you, barkeep?” Zero-MN-one asks as it skids to a stop in front of the observation table. “I’m kind of in the middle of a billion year war right now.”
Joe slides a fresh tap beer across the table to the robot.
“Look, I was just trying to understand this. Can you tell me what this whole war is about?”
“Archives include protocol sequences for Klyth war encounters.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Joe says. “That’s how you fight. I wanted to find out why you fight.”
“Because of extant protocol sequences for Kly–”
“So you’re saying you don’t know.”
If you didn’t already know, telling a robot that he doesn’t know something is the second surest way of getting him annoyed at you. (The first surest way is to taunt him about the First Law of Robotics by pointing at him and repeatedly yelling “can’t kill me, can’t kill me!” They hate that.)
“I am not saying that. This unit includes over four percent of the entirety of Nepthli cultural knowledge all by itself. Networked to a complete storage squadron, there is nothing about the Nepthli I cannot answer.”
“So network,” Terri said. “It shouldn’t take long, as advanced as you guys obviously are.”
“I don’t think flattery works on robots, dear one,” Madhi whispers to Terri, who shrugs.
“Cultural storage retrieval networking is impossible while protocol INO/TIO is in effect,” Zero-MN-one says.
“But as the few unaffiliated observers here,” Joe says, “we need to be able to put all this in context. I mean, we’ll be the ones who have to host all the war crimes tribunals and stuff afterwards. You don’t want us misinterpreting the Nepthli actions here, right?”
“Hmm,” the robot says. “You make a logical if specious argument. Sadly, there is no way to accede to your pointless demand protocols, as we are unable to network while…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Joe says, accepting the robot’s semantic, albeit suspicious, concession to his point. “Maybe we can work a deal out. Terri?”
Terri nods, taking Joe’s lead, and gets up from the table. She walks right over to the edge of the bar floor, one step away from the void, and pulls a whistle out of her purse and blows twice on it, loudly.
An instant later, the massive blazing figure of the Klyth war god Kharnyvor appears in all his splendor. Everyone shades their eyes because it’s really way too much splendor for this close. Realizing his faux pas, Kharnyvor reduces himself to a more appropriate size and luminosity.
“What is it, Terri?” he asks. “I’m leading my army of vengeful spirits against the blood enemy of our race.”
“Why?” she asks.
“I don’t understand the question,” Kharnyvor says after a long, thoughtful, blank pause.
“Why are you at war with them?”
Kharnyvor blinks, confused. “Because… war! You know. War.”
Joe steps in. He’s used to people not being able to see past their own motivations. You get a lot of that when you hear people bemoaning their life story to you over beer every night.
“Sure, that’s your take. You’re a god of war, Kharnyvor. But as the impartial observers here, we’re trying to discover the original dispute that caused the war. Do you know it?”
Kharnyvor frowns. “It was an awful long time ago, Joe.”
“Then maybe one of your spectres could shed some, ah, light on it?”
“They are animated only by their righteous fury at the Nephtli enemy. There is nothing but hatred that animates them. You would need some kind of Klyth goddess of peace or death or clever deductive observation to glean such knowledge, and right now, I, War Incarnate, am the only sphere of any influence!”
Terri raises one eyebrow at the war-god’s close call with monologuing but lets it slide.
“Then here’s my thought,” Joe says. “You can’t give us the information we need while the war, um, rages. Neither can the Nephtli.”
“What they say will no doubt be lies!” Kharnyvor says.
“No doubt. But we need to be able to separate those lies from the truth, and we can’t do that without knowing why the war started.”
Kharnyvor is obsessive, but he’s not stupid. “What do you suggest, then, bartender?” That last word is said with a heretofore unneeded scorn.
“Ten minutes,” Joe says. “We call off hostilities for ten minutes, long enough for us to get the information we need. Then you go back to doing what you guys apparently do best and we get ready to serve boat drinks to the victors.”
“You wish for a… cease fire?”
“Sadly, that won’t override the… ah… stupid and pointless Nephtli protocols. We need an actual stop to the war, just for a few minutes.”
“Hey, I’m standing right here,” Zero-MN-one says.
Kharnyvor looks unhappy, despite the obvious pandering. “You’re asking a god of war to stop war?”
“See!” Terri beamed, “I knew you would understand!”
Kharnyvor blushes. “Well, if it’s only for a few minutes…”
“Perfect!” Joe says. “As the official impartial liaison, we all agree to put an end to the Klyth/Nepthli war for a period of ten minutes? We can keep track on the Doom Clock, it’s unsettlingly accurate.”
“Agreed,” says Zero-MN-one. Joe shakes the robots limp wobbly arm to seal the verbal contract.
“I concede with a maximum amount of reservation,” sighs Kharnyvor. Joe shakes his hand as well. Kharnyvor’s grip is excrutiating.
Then it’s not there at all.
“Lack of Klyth presence,” Zero-MN-one says to everyone’s–including his own–surprise. “Protocol INO/TIO inactive. Protocol LASTDANCE resuming.”
In the universe visible from the remains of Joe’s place, there are no more spirits of incandescent vengeance nor any flickering machines of war.
“Um, aren’t you going to have the robot network to get the answer to your question?” Terri asks.
Madhi laughs patronizingly until Joe kicks him under the table.
“Why?” Joe asks. “The war’s over.”
“Only for ten minutes,” Terri says.
“Very clever, Mister Eschaton!” Mr. Squixx says from the breathalizer.
“Indeed, well done,” agrees the twelfth Imam.
“Wait, I don’t get it…” Terri says, frowning more at being left out of the joke than at not getting it.
“It was a war between two dead races,” Joe explains. “Robots programmed with one side, ghosts and war gods of another. All of them were only kept going by their war, their hatred. Take that away, even for a minute…”
“…and there’s nothing left to start it up again!” Terri said.
Joe taps his nose and smiles.
“What about him?” Terri asks, pointing at the robot, who is now busy humming a melancholy song to himself.
Joe clapped one arm around the mechanical man. “Ready to see where your last protocol takes you, hoss?”
“Protocol LASTDANCE includes curiosity about what comes next,” the robot says with an almost-human weariness. “Lead the way.”
Joe takes the robot down the hall and shows him the back exit.
© 2013 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.