This was the fourth bar Lopez had tried in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward, and the moment she saw the pool table, she knew it was the right one.
Most of the establishment was thudding music and low lights streaked with neon, so she could shoulder her way through the crowd and its stench of sweat and desperate fun unnoticed. If the Romulan War had done any good anywhere on Earth, it was in the leisure industry as humanity drank and partied and connected its way through the coming annihilation or enslavement.
But the pool area was well-lit, casting a spotlight down on the two figures playing. One was tall and gangly, bright green hair falling back in neon dreadlocks, bare arms adorned with twisting tattoos that stood bright against dark skin. He stood watching, pool cue in hand, brow furrowed.
‘That was unlucky,’ came the slurred voice of the other player. ‘Unlucky. You coulda done it.’ Wiry, tousle haired and boyishly-charming, Takahashi Riku had to crane his neck to look up at his opponent. ‘Reckon I got you on the ropes now.’
Lopez cast a quick look at the table. The dreadlocked man only had one more ball to pot before the black. Takahashi still had four. She suppressed a smile.
Tak walked around the table, eyeing his various angles, an inebriated sway to his step. Then he again looked to his opponent. ‘On the ropes,’ he repeated. ‘How about we make it more interestin’, huh? Double the bet?’
‘You kidding, man? You still gotta -’ Dreadlocks stopped himself, and fished out his wallet. ‘Sure. Double. Your funeral, man.’
‘Double!’ Tak agreed cheerfully, arms open in an exaggerated gesture. Only then did he clock Lopez in the crowd, and she could read the wink in the flicker of his gaze. ‘It’ll be fun!’
It took less than a minute for Tak to sink the four yellows and the black. By the end he wasn’t even bothering to appear drunk any more; the jig was up and so Lopez watched as he enjoyed himself, twirling his cue, potting the last yellow with an unnecessarily flamboyant reverse-grip, and hopping the white over Dreadlocks’ red to sink the black.
It took less than a second after Tak grabbed the pile of money before he was pinned face-down against the table. ‘You hustlin’ piece of -’
‘Hey, we’re all friends here!’
‘We’ll be friends when I put your face through this table -’
‘That makes you a bad friend.’
‘Hey!’ Lopez stepped out of the crowd, and then wondered what on Earth her gambit was as not just Dreadlocks, but four of his big friends all turned to look at her. She considered saying, Sorry, my mistake, and picking up the pieces of Takahashi later, but that wouldn’t suit her needs. So instead she planted her hands on the pool table and said, ‘Do you know who that is?’
Dreadlocks looked down at Takahashi. ‘He’s the slime who’s tried hustlin’ me out of my money and is about to get what’s his, so I reckon you stay back if you don’t want to join him, lady.’
But there had been a flicker of doubt, so Lopez stepped in. ‘That’s Jefferson Travis. Commander Jefferson Travis of Starfleet. Hero of the Battle of Sol.’ Blank looks met her gaze, and she quirked an eyebrow. ‘He saved this city?’
‘When the Romulans attacked he was in a shuttle conducting a survey of the Interceptor in orbit. So the battle happened and it was just him, in a little shuttlepod. Not able to hurt any big ship, but keeping flying anyway, shooting down every missile headed for Earth’s surface.’ Lopez cocked her head. ‘So, really, he’s not just the saviour of Tokyo, but Seoul and Beijing, too…’
‘It’s true,’ came Tak’s voice muffled against pool table felt. ‘Five atmosphere-bound missiles shot down, no idea how many more aimed for our ships, but I got the one which would have taken out the Enterprise bridge -’
‘Shut up!’ But Dreadlocks cast an uncertain glance at his friends. ‘And why should I believe you?’
‘Oh.’ Lopez reached into her leather jacket and fished out her PADD to bring up her ID display to show him. ‘Because I’m a Starfleet captain, and I was there.’
Dreadlocks looked down. Then gave Takahashi’s head one last shove before letting him go and stepping back. ‘You get this one,’ he warned. ‘But I see your face around here again, war hero or no…’
‘He’ll behave,’ Lopez promised. ‘He and I got business to talk.’
Takahashi massaged his face as Dreadlocks and his friends moved on. ‘You couldn’t have opened with proving you’re a Starfleet captain?’
‘No guarantee they’d care about that. Besides. This was funnier.’ She clasped his forearm. ‘How’re you doing, Tak?’
‘Flat. Does my face look thinner to you?’
She lifted a hand to his chin, turning his head this way and that. ‘No. Just dented. Everything’s a bit lopsided.’
‘I knew it. My next career’s going to be saving money on holographic effects for the next indie horror movie.’
‘I hope you make more money than you did hustling pool.’ She picked up the money chits and started counting. ‘I knew things were rough when ECS pulled back a bunch of their rim traders but I didn’t think you were this desperate.’
‘The desperation comes for stimulation, not money. I’ll be able to keep up my decadent lifestyle the moment the kidney sale goes through.’ He took the chits back. ‘So really, you should buy the drinks.’
‘You hustle money and I save your ass from getting beat for it, and I’m buying?’
He met her gaze. ‘You’re the one who wants something from me.’
‘Tak, we’re friends, and I am offended -’ She saw his unwavering look and shrugged. ‘Worth a try. Let’s get a beer.’
She made sure he had a cold drink in his hand before she made her pitch. And despite herself, despite knowing better than ever dropping her guard around Takahashi Riku was a bad idea, she couldn’t fight the glint of glee as she said, ‘I got a new ship, Tak.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Gardner got that desperate? What, an old Intrepid crew got bumped up so they pulled you out of the doldrums -’
‘Nope. I got the Phoenix.’
Tak stared. ‘Get outta town.’
‘Gardner and I had a little chat and we saw eye to eye.’
‘What do you have on him? Blackmail?’
‘Hypnosis,’ Lopez deadpanned. ‘So this is your chance, Tak. I’ll reinstate you to active duty, full rank, Chief Comms, the works.’
‘My chance?’ Tak paused. ‘Wait, do you think this would be you doing me a favour?’
She leaned against the bar, frowning at him. ‘What else are you doing? ECS are cutting down on their shipments. No independent operator’s heading out to the rim from Earth any time soon. You’ll have a miserable time hopping to Alpha Centauri and if you’re lucky you’ll make deckhand -’
‘As opposed to all the great fun I’ll have getting blown up by Romulans? No thanks, Nat. Things were good on the Constellation but that was a long time ago now. Starfleet wants me to jump so high, press my uniform, yes-sir-no-sir curtsy. I’m done with that. I’m done with being threatened with a court martial if I don’t do what they say, like keep my trap shut around a superior asshole or hurt people.’
Lopez squinted. ‘Your court martial was the exact opposite of that; we wanted you to not shoot -’
‘It never went to court martial because I quit,’ Takahashi butted in. ‘And now I’m gone.’
‘Now you’re nowhere. It’ll be different on the Phoenix – it’ll be me in charge. I’m not here to win this war by practising saluting and only listening to folks who bow and scrape before they open their mouths. I’m having to put a staff together from the dregs, and you get the best out of those people if you give them room to breathe and actually listen to them instead of shutting them down because they don’t fit the right look for Starfleet. The “right look” isn’t winning this war, the usual way of doing things isn’t coming up with any bright ideas. For every crackpot loser I get, there’ll be an off-beat genius. That’s why I need you, Tak.’
He studied his beer. ‘You reckon if I come along as a crackpot loser it’ll generate a genius?’
Lopez made a noise of frustration, turning away from the bar. She’d been on Earth for months now, and her feet were starting to itch under natural gravity. She couldn’t understand how Takahashi didn’t feel the same, how he could be satisfied spending his nights in dives like this, hustling pool.
Her eyes landed on the pool table. ‘Play you for it. I win, you sign on. You win, I leave you alone.’
Takahashi drained his beer. ‘You’re on.’
‘I bought the drinks, so I get to break,’ she said, heading over and grabbing one of the cues. ‘Set us up.’ She watched him as he did so, remembering long evenings on the Constellation matching wits to pass the time. It had been cards back then, but she didn’t dare take him on in a card game for something like this. He was too big a cheat.
She sank three balls before it was his turn. He potted one, but the cue ball just knocked the red against the felt edge on his second shot, and Lopez reckoned that was the point Takahashi realised something was wrong. The bad news for him was that it was too late.
His gaze was flat when she sank the black and his voice came out like granite. ‘Good game.’
‘It was!’ Lopez grinned cheerily. ‘Welcome back to the fleet, Lieutenant.’ He continued to stare at her, and she kept it up for a few long moments before the fun wore off. ‘You got me. Or, rather. I got you.’
‘No, you cheated.’ She fished the original cue ball out of her pocket, the one he’d used in his game against Dreadlocks that she’d discreetly palmed in their confrontation. ‘I saw it drift during your game; what do you got, something up your sleeve to control its trajectory? Very smooth, I wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t know you too well.’ She tossed it in the air and caught it. ‘I swiped it so you wouldn’t get caught with it.’
Takahashi stared down at the cue ball still on the felt. ‘This damn table’s got a resequencer on it, doesn’t it, for when balls go missing.’
‘Yep. That’s why I challenged you to pool. I knew you’d think you could cheat and get cocky.’
‘Son of a-’
She tossed him the trick ball. ‘Phoenix launches on Monday. I’ll have your assignment papers with you tomorrow.’ Her chin lifted a half-inch. ‘World’s ending, Tak. You want to do something about it, or fiddle while Rome burns? It was sloppy of you to try to play me. You shoulda known better.’
‘Which are you pissed about, Nat? My poor sense of civic duty, or that I tried to cheat you?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘You sure you want me around, the only person who’ll call you out when this assignment shows itself for what it is: your ego-trip to personal redemption?’
‘Hey, I’m not greedy.’ She stepped back with a lopsided grin and a jaunty shrug. ‘It can be your ego-trip to redemption, too. See you in a week, Tak.’