You are brought into a large and gothic library with a high ceiling and a long bench along one wall. An older man begins going down the row, speaking with and examining each of the large number of people seated along with me in turn. You have a sense that you’re not supposed to be there, one that is exacerbated by your realization that the people on either side of you have six fingers on at least one of their visible hands. Fearing that is some kind of required sign, you hide your hands in your robe before the older examiner can get to you.

When he approaches, he smiles warmly and hands you a golden box. You know instantly that he has seen through you, and knows that you are not supposed to be there, but that hardly seems to matter as you and the other “rejects” begin to float skyward: the old man seems to have abolished gravity for all of you. The others begin to converse while you and the “rejects” cavort in the air above them, unable to hear what they are saying no matter how close you get.

For a while you are content to float about joyously, kicking off of the ornate fixtures near the ceiling in a glorious ballet of weightlessness, but soon you become curious about the meeting below and what it entails. You decide to take some small books from a shelf immediately above where the older man is now seated. You have a vague notion of reading them to discover their secrets, or perhaps trading them (and others) for answers.

You remove the books and attempt to show them to the others that were rejected from the gathering and float nearby. You’re interrupted from a cry down below; the old man mournfully, vengefully declares that the meeting and all its business must cease because of the injury inflicted on the library. You look back at the sconce from which the books were taken, and see that there is ink on the shelf, red ink, like blood from a fresh wound. It’s as if the library is a living organism and you have cut off a finger.

A sudden, overwhelming feeling of guilt strikes you, washing away the former desire to know the secrets of the meeting. You convince the other floaters to help you in cleaning the library and restoring the books to their rightful place, but the old man’s sullen expression indicates that it’s not enough.

“Joy,” you say, “I’m an engineer. I might be able to design something like this if you gave me enough time, but I have no idea how to use it.”

“It is a simple point and click interface,” Joy says from your wrist in that not-quite-monotone voice.

“Joy!”

“Very well. Accessing database entries.” You could swear she sounds petulant that you didn’t laugh at her little pun. “It is an M-50 assault rifle, model 6. This rifle is considered one of the great follies of modern military technology. Under pressure from megacorporate leaders and government buyers, it was rushed into production with multiple design flaws. The result was a highly inaccurate firearm that was nevertheless widely distributed to EC military units. The large-caliber, can-feed, caseless round design proved dangerous and ineffective in battle. Historical Dictionary of Arms and Armor, 8th edition, amended.”

“Amended?” you say. “By who?”

“Unknown,” Joy says…smugly? “Citation needed.”

You sigh, and shake Joy’s interface unit. “Anything else? I need to know how to fire it!”

“Recording of an exchange between a senior EC general and a military procurement officer, recorded on an FNS hidden microphone smuggled into a high-level meeting in a box of donuts:

‘This thing couldn’t hit the broad side of a starship at twenty yards. How many did you say we ordered?’ – Maj. Gen. Eduard Montreaux

‘Twenty-five million, sir.’ -Unidentified ECC officer adjunct.”

The star Utose 621 beats down on you as you make the long trek to Boomerstown. You’ve only ever come this way in a hoverrig, which only seems to take an instant compared to the endless weary trudge you’re enduring. But both your satellite uplink and the tracks from Hawser’s dirtrover are pointing you in the same direction.

Some miles down the road you come to a crossroads. The dirtrover tracks veer to the left, toward the small mining settlement of Oreo, but strangely your satellite uplink shows Hawser as continuing straight. You pause, puzzled at the disagreement, only to notice that the smoke rising from the ruins of your home has stopped–someone must have arrived to douse the blaze in Reacher’s Hope. It might be rescuers, or even the Rangers.

As you ponder this, you see a hoverrig approaching from the direction of Oreo, headed to the Transplant Wilderness that lays to the east. It might be possible to thumb a ride, if the driver is going slow enough, and it would sure be a load off your tired legs.

If you continue to follow Hawser’s satellite uplink trail toward Boomertown, turn to page 187.

If you decide that the satellite is malfunctioning and follow the dirtrig tracks toward Oreo, turn to page 62.

If you turn back toward Reacher’s Hope in search of whoever put out the fire, turn to page 79.

If you wait at the crossroads until the hoverrig bound for the Transplant Wilderness arrives, turn to page 12.

Melodious music drifts over you as you approach the stairwell, carried by an impossibly rich and pure voice. The words aren’t important–are they ever?–but as you listen you can discern paeans to sunlight, beauty, and rain.

Part of you insists that you climb the stairs without delay, to uncover the source of the beautiful refrain. But another voice–a deeper, more primal part–suggests that you stay in place, rooted, and hear as much of the soaring music as you can. Clambering up the marble steps would add an unhealthy permissiveness to the music, and might startle the song into an early end or even provoke the singer into hurried flight.

The two viewpoints swirling within eventually come to a compromise, and you begin to easy your way up, taking great care that not a single shoe squeak interrupts the sonic glory from on high. It takes far longer to climb in such a manner than simply charging the steps, but it is worthwhile: by the time you reach the top, the song has neither stopped nor faltered. You are able to see the singer, leaning against a marble column and looking up into a skylight.

She isn’t at all what you expected.

You have been, for the past several weeks, bothered by a restless disquiet. Not a physical malady, but an emotional one, a tight knot in the middle chest, near where one feels a broken heart but felt nowhere near as keenly. It is an empty feeling, dull yet with edges of glass.

Filling it has been difficult. Normally, busywork or strenuous leisure is enough to keep emotional pain of that sort at an arm’s length, but that has had no effect–indeed, the effect of trying to ignore it seems to make the disquiet all the stronger. Neither exercise nor food seems to have an effect, and weekends to not dull the sting as they so often do for doldrums of other sorts.

Asking around, you find that many have experienced the same before, as if in a long-forgotten dream, but are at a loss to describe how it was conquered. All they are sure of is that it’s a malady born of complacency, of stasis, of rut and routine. To break free is to step outside the ordinary.

But the ordinary is all you know.

You shrug, not really knowing how to respond.

“I’ll take that as a maybe, then,” the man says. “An unfairly maligned response, in my estimation. In today’s world it’s all about the hard and fast, the polar opposites, the dichotomies. There’s no room for ‘maybe’ in a world of ‘yes’ and ‘no.'”

“I…I guess so,” you stammer, still not sure of what the man speaks or what he wants.

“Of course, it can also mean indecision, wishy-washiness, flip-floppery. A reasoned ‘maybe’ has its place in a complicat’d world, but a yearning to please all, to avoid notice, to make unrealistic promises, to overlook…well, that’s no good either. So what is yours, a reasoned and cautious ‘maybe,’ or a cowardly one?”

You take a breath, reasoning to yourself that perhaps playing at the man’s game will make him finish and leave you be. “A cautious one,” you say. “It’s always better to be cautious when you don’t know what you’re dealing with.”

“Maybe so,” the man says, chuckling softly. “Maybe so.”

Let’s face it, you’re still scared of the dark. It’s hard-coded by our species’ relative lack of night vision, and reinforced by a thousand hours of pop culture.

As you wander through the darkened hallways, catching a glimpse of the city lit up at night, you reflect on how many films have shown someone in the same situation meeting a grisly death at the hands of mass murderers, monsters, and other fun chaps. The emergency lights give the place an eerie sheen like the best Hollywood mood lighting, and the fact that, in your mind’s eye, the place bustles with attentive life makes its still, cold silence all the more difficult to bear.

Even with the weight of years upon your brow, you can’t help but believe in some heart of hearts that Murgmagh the Eyeball Plucker is lurking out there, and that unless you turn back now, he will have his meal.

You find yourself breaking away from the group, returning to Hoan Kiem in the center of town, gazing at passersby or the glass-smooth surface of the lake from a park bench.

The legends you hear from the locals speak of Emperor Lê Lợi, who the Golden Turtle God had given a magic sword to defeat the Chinese. After his victory, they say, a large turtle confronted the Emperor while he was boating and took the sword back until such time as it is needed again. That is why they call it Hoan Kiem, “Returned Sword Lake,” and descendants of that turtle supposedly still remain.

Like so many things, people said the turtles were only legend…at least until they made themselves known. One came ashore to die during the war, the year before Tet; you see it on display in the temple, a leathery giant over five feet long with no company in its gilded display case save a dehumidifier. People videotape other turtles when they appear, but none have been seen in years. You read an inset in your travel guide which claims that there may only be a single turtle left. Their kind lives to an advanced age; one may very well linger on, the last of its kind. Even if there were more, the lake’s edge is all hard cement, enveloped by the city of Hanoi.

There is nowhere for a mother turtle to bury her eggs.

83.

The number, along with its cousins 183, 283, 383, and so forth, have regularly occurred in your life, across time and circumstance too vast to be coincidental.

83 miles to your grandparents’ house. 183 inches around the outside of your childhood bedroom. 283 applications for the position your firm offered. Flight 383 from San Francisco to Newark.

You asked a mathematician about it once; she responded with jargon about frequency and primes. Your co-worker said the pattern was based on obsessive compulsion on your part, a mind for minute details that came in handy during working hours but played strange tricks outside them. Friends came to groan when you pointed out fresh examples of 83, or things that boiled down to 83. One of your lovers even left you after a tiff brought on by an “inspected by 83” tag.

However, when a promotion led you to an inspection tour of number 8383 Industrial Way South, you knew that something more than mere coincidence was behind it.