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Page 95 of Caliban's War (Expanse 2)

When the next message began, it looked just like the others before it. The man in the image was older—eighty, maybe ninety—with a fringe of white hair clinging to the back of his skull and a craggy face. There was something about his expression that caught Prax’s attention. A hesitance.

“Dr. Meng,” the man said. He had a slushy accent that reminded Prax of recordings of his own grandfather. “I’m very sorry to hear of all you and your family have suffered. Are suffering.” The man licked his lips. “The security video on your presentation. I believe I know the man in it. But his name isn’t Strickland …”

Chapter Thirty-Four: Holden

According to the station directory, the Blauwe Blome was famous for two things: a drink called the Blue Meanie and its large number of Golgo tables. The guidebook warned potential patrons that the station allowed the bar to serve only two Blue Meanies to each customer due to the drink’s fairly suicidal mixture of ethanol, caffeine, and methylphenidate. And, Holden guessed, some kind of blue food coloring.

As he walked through the corridors of Tycho’s leisure section, the guidebook began explaining the rules of Golgo to him. After a few moments of utter confusion—goals are said to be “borrowed” when the defense deflects the drive—he shut it off. There was very little chance he was going to be playing games. And a drink that removed your inhibitions and left you wired and full of energy would be redundant right now.

The truth was Holden had never felt better in his life.

He’d messed a lot of things up over the last year. He’d driven his crew away from him. He’d aligned himself with a side he wasn’t sure he agreed with in exchange for safety. He might have ruined the one healthy relationship he’d had in his life. He’d been driven by his fear to become someone else. Someone who handled fear by turning it into violence. Someone who Naomi didn’t love, who his crew didn’t respect, who he himself didn’t like much.

The fear wasn’t gone. It was still there, making his scalp crawl every time he thought about Ganymede, and about what might be loose and growing there right now. But for the first time in a long time, he was aware of it and wasn’t hiding from it. He had given himself permission to be afraid. It made all the difference.

Holden heard the Blauwe Blome several seconds before he saw it. It began as a barely audible rhythmic thumping, which gradually increased in volume and picked up an electronic wail and a woman’s voice singing in mixed Hindi and Russian. By the time he reached the club’s front door, the song had changed to two men in an alternating chant that sounded like an argument set to music. The electronic wail was replaced by angry guitars. The bass line changed not at all.

Inside, the club was an all-out assault on the senses. A massive dance floor dominated the center space, and the dozens of bodies writhing on it were bathed in a constantly changing light show that shifted and flashed in time to the music. The music had been loud out in the corridor, but inside, it became deafening. A long chrome bar was set against one wall, and half a dozen bartenders were frantically filling drink orders.

A sign on the back wall read GOLGO and had an arrow pointing down a long hallway. Holden followed it, the music fading with each step so that by the time he reached the back room with the game tables, it was back to being muted bass lines.

Naomi was at one of the tables with her friend Sam the engineer and a cluster of other Belters. Her hair was pulled back with a red elastic band wide enough to be decorative. She’d switched out her jumpsuit for a pair of gray tailored slacks he hadn’t known she owned and a yellow blouse that made her caramel-colored skin seem darker. Holden had to stop for a moment. She smiled at someone who wasn’t him, and his chest went tight.

As he approached, Sam threw a small metal ball at the table. The group at the other end reacted with sudden violent movements. He couldn’t see exactly what was happening from where he stood, but the slumped shoulders and halfhearted curses coming from the second group led Holden to believe that Sam had done something good for her team.

Sam spun around and threw up her hand. The group at her end of the table, which included Naomi, took turns slapping her palm. Sam saw him first and said something he couldn’t hear. Naomi turned around and gave him a speculative look that stopped him in his tracks. She didn’t smile and she didn’t frown. He raised his palms in what he hoped was an I didn’t come to fight gesture. For a moment, they stood facing each other across the noisy room.

Jesus, he thought, how did I let it come to this?

Naomi nodded at him and pointed at a table in one corner of the room. He sat down and ordered himself a drink. Not one of the blue liver-killers the bar was famous for, just a cheap Belt-produced scotch. He’d grown to, if not appreciate, at least tolerate the faint mold aftertaste it always had. Naomi said goodbye to the rest of her team for a few minutes and then walked over. It wasn’t a casual stroll, but it wasn’t the gait of someone going to a dreaded meeting either.

“Can I order you something?” Holden asked as she sat.

“Sure, I’ll take a grapefruit martini,” she said. While Holden entered the order on the table, she looked him over with a mysterious half smile that turned his belly to liquid.

“Okay,” he said, authorizing his terminal to open a bar tab and pay for the drinks. “One hideous martini on its way.”

Naomi laughed. “Hideous?”

“A near-fatal case of scurvy being the only reason I can imagine drinking something with grapefruit juice in it.”

She laughed again, untying at least one of the knots in Holden’s gut, and they sat together in companionable silence until the drinks arrived. She took a small sip and smacked her lips in appreciation, then said, “Okay. Spill.”

Holden took a much longer drink, nearly finishing off the small glass of scotch in a single gulp, trying to convince himself that the spreading warmth in his belly could stand in for courage. I didn’t feel comfortable with where we left things, and I thought that we should talk. Kind of process this together. He cleared his throat.

“I f**ked everything up,” he said. “I’ve treated my friends badly. Worse than badly. You were absolutely right to do what you did. I couldn’t hear what you were saying at the time, but you were right to say it.”

Naomi took another drink of her martini, then casually reached up and pulled out the elastic band holding her masses of black curls behind her head. Her hair fell down around her face in a tangle, making Holden think of ivy-covered stone walls. He realized that for as long as he’d known her, Naomi had always let her hair down in emotional situations. She hid behind it, not literally, but because it was her best feature. The eye was just naturally drawn to its glossy black curls. A distraction technique. It made her suddenly seem very human, as vulnerable and lost as he was. Holden felt a rush of affection for her that must have showed on his face, because she looked at him and then blushed.

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