He stopped, stumbling and out of breath. This part of the Bad Ends was badder. The wiring above the crossroads was so haphazard that only an electrician with obsessive-compulsive disorder could hope to untangle it, if he wasn’t electrocuted first. A grubby street sign showed that Marley was on “Definitely Badder Street”.
The mess of wires must be doing something. A light flickered in a window above. To the left inside was dark. A red glow emanated from the top room. On the street corner a VT advertised space cruises.
The twilight would take two hours to settle into darkness. Mr Kibbles was more than just a graffiti artist. Barrel had mentioned an exhibition.
He walked into a bar called the Boxer’s Glove. It was bland, grey wooden walls set off retro-period bar stools tucked under steel tables nailed to the floor. Nothing like the sleek Quasar Bar.
Sitting at the bar, early evening customers looked like they had been drinking since morning.
In the corner: someone who had probably been there since the previous evening, or maybe he was always there. He glared at anything and everything, a pint of Betelgeusian Winner in hand.
Marley bought himself half a Strangbrew. He took a sip and was thankful. This stuff was strong, twice as strong.
A brutal game of ice rugby captivated onlookers near the VT. Near the lavatory entrance a bunch of young men and a Sirian woman played Nunchian snooker.
Marley placed a credit on the table.
They looked up briefly and continued.
“Going to the exhibition?”
A man in a fake leather jacket and aqua latex leggings surveyed him. “What? You got tickets?”
“No,” said Marley.
“You want tickets?”
“Probably. Are they on sale?”
“Probably not.” The Sirian put her long arm around him and massaged his shoulder with three fingers.
Marley was not sure if she was Sirian. Her hair was three feet long, her eyes abnormally large. Only part of her face was blue. She could be a mix of Sirian and Nunchian.
The man in latex leggings scratched his well-ensconced balls before flashing a grin. He withdrew five gold stubs from inside his jacket. He took a swig of a clean white spirit, likely a 70% proof Centauran gin.
He patted his sweaty forehead. “These babies,” he shook the stubs at Marley, “are worth more than your grandma. But I’m feeling generous. If you can beat me at Nunchian snooker, I’ll give you one.”
The pseudo-Sirian looked at them sternly. “Gonzalez.”
“What baby? Have I had too much, too much of you?” He squeezed her skinny behind. He waved the tickets in front of Marley. “Beat me, and this ticket is yours. Lose, and I beat you… with this.” He grabbed a Nunchian cue from the stand and made to smash it over Marley’s head, stopping inches from his scalp.
The bartender looked up, idly cleaning a glass.
Not only would the blow of a Nunchian cue crack Marley’s skull, the magnetic discharge would turn his brain into the preferred delicacy of an evil race predicted by Nostradamus to invade the galaxy in 4012.
Marley gulped. He’d played Nunchian snooker many times. Although the prospect of losing didn’t bother him, being beaten over the head by a cue did.
Gonzalez growled with joy and approached the 20 foot-long table. His alien girlfriend shrugged her shoulders and sat on a stool by the window.
Nunchian snooker was an old game. 500 years old. As the joke goes, in 2500, three human agricultural workers walk into a Nunchian bar. The bartender doesn’t let them in. Until they show him their cattle prods. “You want your drink rare or well done?” The workers don’t get the joke. They zap him until he falls to the floor, help themselves to drinks, then approach the pool table. Cattle prods were twice as effective as regular cues, sending balls flying everywhere and smashing bottles of Enceladan whiskey. That’s Nunchian snooker in a nutshell.
These days, the pool table is enlarged to allow for the ever-increasing power of the magnetic discharge. Two more pockets have been added and under Faraday Rules, a black hole is always placed in the centre. Not all establishments can afford to implement the Faraday Rules. However, The Boxer’s Glove was no stranger to the Faraday Rules.
The goal of Nunchian snooker was similar to regular snooker, apart from the added shot distance and mini-black hole. And ionised pool cues. And safety gear: helmets for professionals. Everything else was the same. Sink your balls then sink the black. If any balls were sucked down the black hole, two appeared in their place, meaning you had an extra ball to sink before you could go for the black. Skilled players use the black hole to their advantage, exploiting its gravity to pull off swerve shots.
Marley would need all the nerve and skill he had to win the ticket and walk out fully conscious.
Without tossing for the break, Gonzalez broke the pyramid of balls, 25 of them to be exact. A blue spot fell into the top-right pocket. But a red spot and amber stripe flew off the table. Foul. Gonzalez pretended not to notice and continued. He missed the next shot and grudgingly retreated to the window.
Marley charged his cue in the tesla field. His first shot was lucky. He snuck the ball around the black hole, sinking a stripe. The next shot he easily missed.
Gonzalez got up. He was confident. If he lost he gave away a ticket. If he won he got to smack a stranger on the head, immobilising him for months, possibly forever.
He knocked in three spots with possibly the best shot Marley had seen. The first two flew in at opposite pockets; Gonzalez steered the third with remaining charge from his cue. This was not, strictly speaking, illegal.
Shaken by his opponent’s aggression, Marley fluffed. He sunk a purple spot straight into the black hole. Two more appeared at the end of the table, making him an extra ball further from his goal.
Gonzalez surveyed the table. Eight balls left. Marley had thirteen.
Games of Nunchian snooker became chaotic with drunk or inexperienced players. It wasn’t unusual to see a game starting with twenty-five balls and finishing with forty-nine. If you doubled the amount of balls you started with, you lost. (There was a variation called Nunchian Snooker – Sucker Shot, where the aim was to make the most fouls and accumulate the most balls. But Marley and Gonzalez were not playing Sucker Shot.)
Gonzalez sunk another fluent spot. But he mistimed the placement, giving himself no room for the follow-up. He took a swig of his Strangbrew and played a defensive stroke. He flopped down.
Marley was presented with an easy shot. But overconfident, he over hit it. The green stripe rebounded off the pocket cushions before swerving into the black hole. Thirteen balls still!
Gonzalez licked his lips and hammered home three quick shots. “Get me another Strangbrew baby.”
“Get it yourself darling.”
“I’m on a roll.”
“I’ll get it for you,” said Marley. He needed another himself. He would have to be out of senses when it came time for the beating.
Gonzalez sunk his fourth in a row, striking a rebound off the cushion, leapfrogging the black hole and knocking a pink spot into the centre-right pocket.
Marley had never seen anything like this before. But that was because he only played with bored university students and jaded professors, not with inhabitants of the Bad Ends who likely derived some of their income from the game.
“Two Strangbrews please.”
The bartender placed a glass over the Strangbrew tap. “Out of Strangbrew, mate.”
Marley rubbed his left eye with his little finger. “You’re out? But the world functions on Strangbrew.”
“We’re getting another keg in half an hour.”
Next to the Strangbrew tap was something called a Big Bang.
“I recommend it,” said the bartender. “More expensive, but twice as good.” He winked. “The Cretans have exceeded themselves this time. Try a sample.”
Marley took ever the slightest of sips. Not only was it twice as expensive, it was twice as powerful. It went straight to his head. As did an idea. “Two Big Bangs please, each with a shot of Reticulum Rum.”
“Two Bangers and Mash? Coming up.” Acidic steam rose from the glasses.
Marley grabbed the two dark frothy beverages and headed back to the table. Gonzalez was too busy toying with his nonchalant girl to note the drink Marley placed next to him. Apart from steam rising from the glass, it looked like a regular Strangbrew. The steam settled.
Marley took his shot and missed everything, except the black hole. When the white fell into the black hole the opponent took his next shot from wherever he wanted.
“My go already?” Gonzalez gulped down half his Bangers and Mash. He fired the first two shots home. The proximity of victory made him more cautious.
He patted the next into the far right pocket, the tiniest of discharges emanating from his cue. He was one black ball from winning. One ball from a victorious stranger whipping.
Marley pretended to take a sip of his drink. He charged his cue in the tesla field for longer than usual. He might as well go out in a blaze of glory.
As he lined up his shot the overflow of current pushed the white ball forward before he had finished aiming. He could not retract this. By the rules he had taken his shot.
The cue ball lamely kissed a yellow stripe. At least the shot was legal.
Gonzalez puffed out his chest and strode to the table. He twirled the cue effortlessly between his fingers. He looked at Marley and pointed the cue squarely between his eyes. But when he surveyed the table he was annoyed to find he didn’t have a clear sight of the black. Either he could rebound the white off two middle cushions, or he could go the long rebound off the far end. Or he could use the gravity of the black hole.
He cleared his throat. He wanted his gang, and his woman, to pay attention when he performed his victory dance. He went the long rebound. The shot needed power.
Power was not lacking. It swerved round the black hole and thudded perfectly into the black. The black ball sunk without a sound into the end pocket, right in front of Marley, who bowed impassively.
Gonzalez turned round to his mates and raised his arms in the air. He was Neptune, lord of the underworld, trident ready to invoke the lightning of the gods.
But the gods did not share his spirit.
As he turned back to face Marley, his snarl morphed into a glare. The white ball had entered the gravitational field of the black hole. It had passed the event horizon, the point of no return.
The bar fell silent.
The clock stopped ticking.
Slowly the ball circled the swirling vortex. As its orbital radius shrank the crowd leaned in.
It was inevitable. Gonzalez was heading to defeat. Ten seconds later the ball slipped silently down. Marley had won. Gonzalez had fouled his last shot.
Marley suppressed a momentary grin, a smile even more fleeting than Alfredo’s when he scored a last-minute goal against Sporting Sirius, only to realise Real Centauri were behind on goal difference.
Gonzalez bristled. “You moved it!”
Marley raised both palms outwards and shook his head lamely. “Ticket?”
He looked towards the bartender for support. The bartender cleaned a glass.
Gonzalez started twirling his cue like a ninja. He turned around and finished his Bangers and Mash. He resumed the twirling of his cue but dropped it.
The bartender half smiled.
Gonzalez got up and staggered towards Marley. He jabbed the cattle prod at Marley’s stomach and missed by more than a foot. Marley wasted no time parrying. He grabbed Gonzalez’s cue and caught him under the arm with a mighty discharge. The tickets in Gonzalez’s other hand fluttered to the floor.
As Gonzalez stooped to retrieve them Marley kicked him in the chest. You shouldn’t kick a man when he’s down, but now was no time for moralising. Especially against a man in aqua-latex leggings who wanted to dent your skull.
Marley trod on his wrist. Gonzalez released his grasp on the cue and Marley kicked it away. Gonzalez’s three comrades approached.
“Take one step further and your boy gets zapped.” He pointed his cue at Gonzalez’s neck.
“Take your ticket,” Gonzalez said feebly.
Marley did more than take his ticket. He took all five of them. This would prevent the gang getting into the exhibition and exacting revenge.
Then he went for the sprint.