He had thirty minutes left to his lunch break, and another fifteen after that before he would have to meet his new loan applicant. He shut down his computer, straightened the photo of Emily on his desk, and slipped his synched tablet into his bag. The rest of the office hummed busily around him, the other six dozen cubicles on the twelfth floor still full of men and women talking around bites of salad and sandwich. Martin felt like a lightning rod for all their curious stares as he stood and made his way to the corridor, stubbing his toe against the edge of his gray box as he did.

Emily caught his embarrassed gaze with a curling smile; she sat upright, immaculate in a blue navy skirt-suit and crisp red blouse. The color combination would have looked like a costume on anyone else, but Emily managed to pull it off as a compliment to her fair skin and sunny blonde hair. Martin smiled back; embarrassed again. She was three grades above him, though they entered the Private Business Loan Application Service at the same time, and he still didn't understand why she was going out with him.

Martin walked quickly to the elevator and stood facing the mirrored doors as the car hummed up from the first floor. No one else in the office behind him moved; they all knew better than to leave the office during the lunch hour. Anyone who wanted promotion knew better; the Superiors were always watching and nothing set them off a potential candidate so much as "slacking". Martin didn't understand how taking a legally-mandated break constituted slacking, but nothing except the day's special circumstances would have encouraged him to set foot outside between the hours of 8:00 and 18:00.

He swiped his card on the way into the elevator, selected the first floor, and thumbed through the menu:

Select reason for departure:

End of day (option unavailable until 18:00)

Medical emergency (authorization code required)

Client meeting (client code required)

Superior direction (authorization code required)

Lunch break

Rest break

He selected "client meeting" and punched in the nine digit code. The system processed that for a moment, and then replied:

Option invalid. Departure permitted for this client no sooner than 13:15. Select reason for departure:

End of day (option unavailable until 18:00)

Medical emergency (authorization code required)

Client meeting (client code required)

Superior direction (authorization code required)

Lunch break

Rest break

Martin ground his teeth. The elevator doors still hadn't closed and now people were starting to notice that he was standing there, staring at the menu like a trapped fugitive. He punched "lunch break", and received the following message:

Enjoy your break. You have 28:14 minutes remaining.

The readout continued counting down the seconds until the car reached the lobby. By the time he left, he had 27:22 remaining and he still felt the timer clicking down, second after second in his head. Already this mission was starting to feel foolish; though he had his Superior's permission to go directly to his client's business after lunch, it would take ten minutes to get to the library and another seven to get from the library to her store. That left only twenty-five for standing in line, and it would be the luckiest day of Martin's life if the line were only twenty-five minutes long.

Still, he'd been waiting to read this book for weeks, and his name was finally on the top of the list. If he didn't go now, he'd be waiting another six weeks for his name to creep back up from the bottom.

Martin nodded to the receptionists, who stared at him with narrowed eyes as he crossed the lobby. Even the waiting applicants spared him a few curious glances from their tablets. Martin swallowed his nerves and kept his pace slow until he'd cleared the plate glass windows at the front of the building. Then his stride lengthened to the fullest extent of his 5'10" frame. He knew it wasn't much; he caught glances of himself in store windows as he went along, and saw nothing but a panting, middle-sized, rather reedy man with dark-brown hair that needed to be trimmed back to regulation length and a neck that needed tidying up. He ran his hand over the bristling short hairs that crept down the collar of his gray suit. It was a miracle he hadn't been written up for it already.

The ever-present pit in his stomach felt like a ball of cold lead. He couldn't afford to lose his job; a government posting at the level of Loan Control Officer wasn't readily available, and if he was fired, he'd lose the subsidy on his apartment too. He'd have to move, and the balance in his savings account had maybe two months' worth of rent in a low-inc housing complex. Martin knew all the statistics on those; he'd be better off going to live in a public dorm rather than trying his luck in a development like Mountain Vista or Orchard Lane.

Martin wanted to break out into a run to escape those thoughts, but he satisfied himself with stretching his legs until his hips hurt with the unaccustomed exercise. The cameras at every street corner turned lazily to track his movements, and he felt the dozens of eyes that were watching him behind the lenses. One of his friends from high school had gotten into the Citizen Surveillance Bureau after graduating, and he'd gone with him once to see the bewildering array of screens that tracked every street, alley, subway car, and bus station.

He knew that they were laughing at him now. He knew he was just an undersized, undistinguished man, scuttling the streets like a terrified beetle. He wished he'd woken up earlier to iron his suit and do more than his once-over shave, but he'd been so tired. Tomorrow, he'd be up at 6:00 and would take care of all this properly. There was no excuse, as the Private Business Loan Application Service employment manual said, for a careless or sloppy personal appearance. Such would constitute grounds for dismissal.

Grounds for dismissal…he swallowed thickly and crossed the empty street at a jog, heading for the municipal library that attracted people like a honeypot did flies. He saw the lines buzzing around the sides of the building and his heart sank. The line he needed looked an hour long at least, and a check of his watch showed that he had barely thirty minutes left until his client meeting.

He stopped on the sidewalk and swallowed his disappointment, feeling it gather around the lead in his stomach and congeal like cold cooking oil in a frying pan. What was the point?

"What's the point?" he said, muttering the words under his breath as though the people around the library might hear him. He'd never get in. He'd be back on the waiting list for another six weeks, or more if everyone else decided to read Oliver Twist at the same time. One of the library's two copies was on loan to Neo York, nearly five hundred miles away. He'd been waiting for so long…no doubt the list was now twice as long as when he'd put himself on it.

No. He had to try. He crossed the street, stopped quickly at a vending machine and swiped himself a twelve credit sandwich, wincing at the cost but putting it quickly out of his mind. The line for Fictional Classics was thirty-two deep, and he made lucky thirty-three. The number reminded him of his age, but so did the wait. His back complained, his knees ached, and his hips hurt as he shuffled slowly forward, trying to ignore the constant countdown in his head. The sandwich was stale; cold processed turkey, limp lettuce, soggy tomato, and rubbery cheese. He ate it with mechanical swallows, ignoring the taste as best he could, but feeling himself growing more and more angry with each bite. 12 credits was over a tenth of his weekly salary, and he was sure that he'd have been better off hungry.

Come to think of it, why was he even here? He had no particular desire to read Oliver Twist, but the wait for anything he did want was nearly twice as long. What was the point of waiting nearly three months to read a single book, especially when there were dramatizations of them readily available on his streaming service? He was standing in a line he shouldn't be in, eating food he didn't want, and had probably put a very black mark in his record for doing it in the first place. Why was he here?

Martin writhed in an agony of indecision. He should just leave. He should walk away and put the thought of books entirely out of his head. Emily always said that he was crazy for wanting them anyway, and she was probably as right as she usually was.

But there were only twelve people in front of him now, and twelve minutes until he had to meet his client. Maybe he would get lucky, and all the people before him were just returning books. Maybe the line would clear and he could present his claim receipt and walk away with the book lying heavy and solid in his bag…

Three minutes ticked away, and five people left. Hope was so solid in his throat that he could barely breathe.

"What do you mean it's an invalid claim?"

The man's voice was both petulant and demanding, a child whining for a piece of candy he knew he wouldn't get. The librarian's voice on the other side of the dingy Plexiglas informed him that he'd gotten the date wrong; that his claim had been due yesterday.

Before the man could raise another objection, the librarian pushed her glasses up her nose and informed him that he'd already been reassigned to the bottom of the list; it was an automated system and she could do nothing about it.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," he snarled, and the people behind him drew back a step or two, "I've been waiting for over an hour to hear that I can't get a book I've been waiting four months for?"

"Sir," the librarian answered, "I could report you to Security Control for your hostile attitude. I suggest you either leave, or switch your claim to another book."

The man was silent, but Martin could see his shoulders heaving as he fought down his rage. Martin considered again making a run for it; it would not look good for him to be at the site of an arrest. Two people in front of him had already sneaked away, tossing glances at the CCTV cameras mounted above the librarian's window. The hope was greater than his fear. If there was even the slightest chance that he could get his book today, he was going to take it.

He checked his watch. He had only six minutes to make his appointment. If he ran, he could get there in four.

The man finally mastered himself. He turned sharply and walked down the steps, holding himself so stiff and upright he looked like a toy soldier. Martin turned back to the librarian, and held his breath as the few people in front of them returned their books and left.

Finally, unbelievably…he was at the window himself. He passed his tablet through the gap and the librarian squinted to read the twelve digit claim code. Her eyes scanned the readout, and then she said,

"I'm sorry, but there was an emergency claim made for that title from the 2nd Appellate Court. There is no notice made about when we should expect to receive it back. May I switch your claim to another title?"

Martin didn't answer. He couldn't. The miracle that would have brightened his entire week had turned into a nightmare. He took his tablet in numb fingers, turned and wandered down the stairs, only realizing after he'd walked two blocks back towards the office that he was now, on top of everything, late for his appointment with Elizabeth Brown.