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"Don't get shot by a sniper rifle."
You can't go home again.
"You move like a soldier. You a soldier?"
She asked a lot of questions, but Orth answered only in short, noncommittal grunts. In his spectrum of modes, stuttering appeaser on one end and a sharp, monosyllabic fire iron on the other, Orth had wound up somewhere right in the middle. A light rain had started, but that didn't dissuade Miss Green from prodding away at him.
"So where are we going, exactly?"
He'd never been to September before, but he'd heard rumors. Somewhere surreal. A floral quarry. The unification of the physical and the digital. A real workers' paradise in an empire devoted to the pastiche of the thing.
Others were horrific. Noises in the dark. Wet, gray, soft laboratories. The sort of special ops programs that could drive a man to disappear himself.
"How well do you know AuDy and them? You guys seem pretty close?"
He stopped and turned around with a sigh, ready to let Jacqui down with a well-placed look. But he saw something strange in her face. The rapid questions had led him to expect a sort of childlike inquisitiveness: a big grin, teasing eyes. But that's not where she was, he realized.
"I mean, like, do you trust them?"
And suddenly it hit Orth too: how deeply they'd been dragged in. They were on September with no backup, and they were doing a job for Ibex, who—as far as Orth could tell—was halfway to becoming a poppet for a very powerful computer devoted to being a bit of a prick.
The rain sped to a torrent's pace, and Orth's breathing followed suit. One breath, then another, then a number more, and Orth's face slowly came to match Jacqui's. What the hell were they doing?
And then, suddenly—mixed in with the hard slaps of thick rain against the pavement— feet running in what could only be paramilitary step.
Orth's breathing relaxes, and he nods to her as he reaches into his jacket, producing his old service revolver.
"Yeah, that's right. I'm a soldier."
And then Orth added a new syncopation to the rain and the tactical march: a blackpowder rhythm that he'd forgotten he knew how to play.