Imagine you bombed your first date. Like, really bombed it. It ended with your date storming off, an awkward drive home, and the reassurance that you two would never speak to each other again. And imagine you’d mulled over it for days before you finally worked up the courage to ask for a second date. And to your surprise, she said yes.
Now, imagine you live in a world crippled by pollution and overpopulation.
Oh, and a government bureau decides who lives and dies by random selection.
Also, you work for that bureau. And your date is blissfully unaware that you had just saved her from certain death.
Enjoy this world exclusive excerpt from The Divinity Bureau, coming this Fall!
My mind is brought back to the present when I recognize the cross streets of our destination.
“We’re here,” I say.
“You have arrived at your destination,” a too-loud robotic voice purrs.
I jump, still not used to the luxuries of a self-driving car. My worries are only worsened when the car attempts to parallel park. I grip the steering wheel, but it’s locked in place. I glance over at April, who’s checking something on her Mobiroid, barely even noticing the car moving. She doesn’t even look up when it stops suddenly (at least, it feels sudden to me). I glance behind me to make sure we haven’t hit another car. We haven’t, but we’re still too close for comfort. I can’t believe April lets this thing drive her around every day.
Our destination is a hovering skyscraper that is rumored to have the best observation deck in the country. I’ve never been to the top. Jenneka was afraid of heights, and I never had the guts to go on my own. But I’ve always wanted to go, and after living in the Midwest region for two years, I’m figuring that it’s time I cross that item off my bucket list.
Once I’m certain that the car will stop moving, I glance in April’s direction. “Are you ready?”
She closes the app on her Mobiroid and starts digging through her purse. “Just give me a second to find my mask.”
I already have mine pulled out of my pocket, and I put it on while April’s digging for hers. It takes her a few minutes, and I soak in the view of her unmasked face. She’s so beautiful. I chose the location because I heard the observation deck is indoors, which means that she won’t need a mask. We can take in the view, and maybe I can know what it’s like to kiss those full lips…
I shove the thought aside as she pulls out her mask and puts it on. She nods in my direction, and we step out of the car.
The observation deck is a historic landmark. A century and a half ago, it was the tallest building in the world. Though that was before carbon nanotubes, 3D printing, and robot swarm construction, so that title has long passed elsewhere. One also used to be able to see for miles, even all the way to the 70th district, but the atmospheric changes have reduced the view to mostly the 200th district. Still, I figured it’d be interesting to watch how people used to work back in the 21st century. And even with the smog, I still expected the view to be magical.
Unfortunately, when I glance in April’s direction, I can see that she isn’t sharing my enthusiasm.
My face falls. “What’s wrong?”
April holds her hand out to point at the crowd standing in front of us. People are lining up around the corner, heading towards the building’s entrance. Her voice is muffled through her mask, but I can still hear the dejected tone. “We’re never going to get in.”
“Yes, we will,” I say optimistically. I don’t care if I need to wait in line. “We just need to wait a little bit.”
April raises a perfectly groomed eyebrow, skeptical on my interpretation of ‘a little bit.’
“Maybe we should grab lunch and come back?”
“We’ll get lunch after this. I promise.”
April lets out a groan, a loud indication that she doesn’t want to wait that long. But I’m optimistic that we can get in and out fairly quickly. While there’s a hoard of people entering the building, there are sure to be just as many people leaving it. Once we’re inside, all we’d need to do is take an elevator to the top, take a few pictures, and (hopefully) share a romantic moment.
Unfortunately, the look on April’s face is anything but romantic.
I find the last person in line and fall behind them. April begrudgingly trails behind me, adjusting the strap on her face mask. To distract her, I unlock my Mobiroid and start to pull up the guidebook I’d downloaded. “Did you know the windows are made of glass and rubber?”
She raises an eyebrow.
I keep going. “They redid it during the Great Rebellion of District 500. Apparently, the windows took some damage, so they redesigned them to be bulletproof.”
April raises an eyebrow. “You didn’t know that? I had to learn about the tower’s windows in order to pass the third grade.”
“What? How? At that age, I was learning about the history of genetically modified potatoes!”
April looks at me as though a lightbulb had just turned on in her mind. “You know, that actually makes sense.”
“What makes sense?”
She points to the guidebook that is now occupying the screen on my Mobiroid. “Only tourists download these. I had to listen to the guided tour for my elementary school field trips – twice.”
“There’s a guided tour?” I ask, suddenly excited. “How much is it?”
April shakes her head. “It’s not worth the money.” She pauses, still skeptically eying the line in front of us. “Where are you from again?”
“The 402nd District.”
“Where is that?”
“West State,” I answer. “Near the Rocky Mountains. I went to college in District 530, though I couldn’t get a job out there. I ended up moving here for an old girlfriend.”
“Interesting,” April says flatly, though her tone indicates that she doesn’t want to talk about my ex-girlfriends. She goes on, “Two of my grandparents were chairmen for the Divinity Bureau district in the surrounding districts near 530.”
“I know,” I say instinctively, resulting in a tilted head from April. I learned that detail from Gideon’s computer, but I’m not ready to delve into that yet. “Err – I read it somewhere.”
April nods, appearing to accept my answer. This brings me to my next question.
“You’ve asked me all these questions,” I point out. “But I still don’t know a thing about you.” Other than bits and pieces on Gideon’s computer.
April shrugs. “There’s not really a lot to know. I come from a long line of politicians. My family is wealthy. All you have to do is think of your stereotypical rich girl, and you’ve probably figured out a majority of who I am.”
“My stereotype of a rich girl doesn’t involve a minimum wage job at a coffee shop.”
April laughs, a hint of pink staining her cheeks. “I got cut off from my trust fund.” I raise an eyebrow, waiting for her to continue. “What do you want to know?”
“What’s your favorite color?” I ask.
April bursts out laughing. “Really? Is that all you want to know?”
“Oh, there’s more,” I warn with a grin. “I’m just asking the first thing that came to mind.”
“Red,” April replies.
I think about it for a moment. “That makes sense. The lettering on your protest sign was red. I thought you were trying to make it look like blood.”
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to find things to write with?”
“Not at all, actually,” I answer. “I don’t know why we’d need to. We have computers and telecommunication devices.” I flash the wrist that has my Mobiroid attached to it. “There’s no point in wasting your time and money.”
“True. Next question.”
The next question comes easily. “Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or one hundred duck-sized horses?”
April throws her head back laughing. “A horse-sized duck. Your mention of duck-sized guts really turned me off. Next!”
“What did you want to be when you were a kid?”
I’m taken aback. I thought that being the daughter of Henrik McIntyre would turn her off from a political career. “Are you serious?”
April thinks about it. “Well, actually – I wanted to be the Queen of the Confederal Districts. Unfortunately, that job doesn’t exist.”
“Is politics still something that you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” April admits. “You should have seen my dad. He was always so… secretive. And the way he talked was like…” She looks away, lost in the memory. “Well, he had a really monotone voice. He always chose his words carefully. I think most of his success was because he could bore you to death. I don’t think I’d be good at that.” She pauses. “My feet hurt. Let’s sit.”
I don’t have the chance to utter another word before April plops herself onto the concrete ground. She immediately pulls her heels off her feet as soon as she’s comfortable. I feel awkward hovering over her, so I find a spot next to her and plop onto the ground.
“You know,” I say, circling back to our conversation. “From what I know about you, I think you’re a badass. And I think you can be good at anything that you want to be good at.”
April turns to look at me, a wide smile on her face that’s making my stomach churn. “Do you really think that?”
I wrap an arm around her tiny frame and pull her closer to me.
“I really do,” I answer softly, and I mean that.
She lets out a breath as she leans her head against my shoulder. “Cool,” she says, her voice light. “I think that I want to be good at cutting lines to tourist attractions.”
It takes an extra second to comprehend what April is saying; but when I do, I burst out laughing. “That’ll just make you an expert at being an asshole.”
“I can live with that,” she says with a grin. Despite her claims, though, she doesn’t appear to have any desire to move from her spot – and neither do I.
The moment of calm is shortly interrupted by a stomach growl. I’m not sure if it came from me or April, but April is the first to voice my thoughts. “I could really use some food.”
I agree, but I’m worried about losing our place in line. The crowd behind us is only getting bigger, and I don’t want to wait any longer than I need to.
April sits up first. “How about if we just hit up a café and come back? By then, the line should have died down a little…”
I stand up behind her, though I tug on her arm to keep her from leaving the line. “No, no, no. We’re already moving…” April gives me a skeptical look that I purposefully ignore. “I have an idea. How about you save our spot in line, and I’ll run across the street and grab us some food? We can eat while we wait.”
April hesitates. I’m guessing that she’d rather enjoy her meal inside a warm café instead of the smoggy streets of District 200. But she eyes the ever-growing line behind her and concedes. “Alright, fine.”
I grin. “Anything in particular that you’re in the mood for?”
April shrugs. “Surprise me. I’m not picky – just as long as it doesn’t have marinara sauce, pickles, or anything spicy.” She pauses. “Also, extra bonus if it has pesto.”
“Okay,” I agree. “I’ll be back in ten minutes – twenty minutes, tops. Don’t go anywhere without me.”
I give her a kiss on the cheek, causing her eyes to widen. I make my way across the street. When I turn to glance at April, she has a hand on the cheek where I had kissed her.
I order a grilled chicken panini for April, requesting for extra pesto to be added to her sandwich. I got a ham and cheese panini for myself.
When I make my way across the street ten minutes later, I notice that April isn’t where I left her. I scan the line before finding that she had moved several feet forward, much to my delight. Unfortunately, April doesn’t share my enthusiasm.
“The line attendant came by,” she says, taking the sandwich from my hand. “She said that it’ll be a three-hour wait.”
My eyes widen. “A three-hour wait? That’s absurd!”
“I guess we shouldn’t be surprised,” April says lamely. “It is the weekend.” She takes another look at the line in front of us and sighs. “Listen, Roman. Do you want to just take a raincheck on the observation deck? Maybe we can go to the park or the pier…”
I shake my head. “No, no. It can’t be three hours. We’ve already been waiting for an hour, so it must be three hours for the people behind us. Besides, I’m sure it’ll clear out. The line will probably empty out when people get tired of waiting.”
April takes another look at the line, not seeing any signs of it clearing out anytime soon. “Roman…”
“Come on,” I plead, because I’m really excited about this and I have no problems with waiting – just as long as I get to wait with her. “It won’t be too bad. Besides, it’ll give us time to hang out.”
I’m positive that she’s going to say no, and I won’t blame her if she does. There’s plenty of things to do in District 200, and I’d be happy to take her anywhere that she wants to go. But to my surprise, she agrees.
“Alright fine,” she says, unwrapping the sandwich in her hand. “I’m hungry, though.”
She takes a seat on the sidewalk, and I sit next to her. She takes off her face mask, giving me an unobstructed view of her. We eat in silence, devouring our food. Technically, we’re not supposed to eat outside (something about the smog making its way into our food). But I know she’s hungry, and I am, too. Every once in a while, we need to scoot a few inches forward to keep the line moving, but I don’t think that a few inches will matter. I’m halfway through my panini when April crinkles the wrap that her sandwich had come in.
“This was good,” she says heartily. “Thank you.”
I turn to glance at her, noticing a streak of green on her chin. “You have pesto on your chin.”
She wipes her chin with a handkerchief, but she had only succeeded in spreading the green.
I laugh, bemused by the confused expression on her face. “Here, let me help you with that.”
I take the handkerchief from her hand and press it against her chin. She turns her head so that she’s facing me. As I wipe all traces of green from her face, I can’t help but notice how close her face is to mine – and how her steel eyes keep darting towards my lips. I can hardly breathe. All it would take is a few inches to close the distance between the two of us, but I don’t want our first kiss to be in line while April has basil on her chin. But I’m having a hard time pulling away.
April is the first to break the moment.
“How old are you?” she asks suddenly.
The question makes me burst into a coughing fit, and I’m not sure if it’s because of the smog. I start digging through my pocket for the face mask.
“Does it…” I start to ask, not wanting her to think I’m avoiding the question, but I’m interrupted by another coughing fit. “Does it matter?”
At 25, I’m not abhorrently old; but at nineteen, she might disagree. It’s not uncommon for couples to have several decades between them, but it’s still relatively taboo.
“It does to me,” April replies, looking away. “Look, I’m only nineteen. If you’re old enough to be my dad, that’s going to be weird to me.”
I shake my head. “I’m not old enough to be your dad.”
“Then you should have no problem answering the question.”
“Twenty-five,” I say. “I turn twenty-six in November. I haven’t even stopped my aging.”
April laughs, but she appears more relieved than amused. “You might want to do it soon. My mom says that it’s all downhill once you reach the age of thirty.”
I look away. The primary reason why I haven’t stopped my aging is because I can’t afford it. Immortality is a luxury that my wages from the Divinity Bureau are, ironically, not enough to cover. I also don’t want to end up on the Divinity Bureau’s Election List. But it goes deeper than that. I want children; and in a world where overpopulation is an issue, I feel selfish for it. But even if I had the option, I don’t think that I can bring myself to do it.
“I’m not there yet,” I reply hesitantly. “I’m not sure if I want to be twenty-five for the rest of my life.” I pause. “Maybe if twenty-six ends up being a good year, I’ll do it.”
April shrugs. “It’s up to you. Though as a cautionary tale, my mother was forty when she decided to stop her aging. She vomited up everything she ate, lost a lot of weight, and fainted a few times. She had to be hospitalized for a week.”
My stomach suddenly feels queasy. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
I’m not sure if I’ll be able to finish my panini, but the idea of wasting food makes me cringe – and there’s no way that I’ll be able to bring it into the tower. Once I feel recovered from my coughing fit, I pull off my mask and stuff it down, then I take the garbage from April’s hand. I ask her to save my spot while I search for a trash bin, which I oblige. When I come back, I find that she has moved a few feet forward.
“It looks like we’re finally moving,” I note.
April shakes her head. “Actually, I think our wait just got a little bit longer.”
She points to the entrance door, where a small group has formed a second – and smaller – line. The group consists of a group of men wearing tuxedos and women in ball gowns. The smaller line is able to get into the building without a second thought.
“Is it a private event?” I ask.
“Looks like it,” April says dryly. “We’re never going to get in.”
“Yes, we will,” says Roman, his brow furrowed in determination. “We’ve already waited for over an hour. If we leave now, it’ll all have been for nothing.”
I cut her off, knowing that she’s going to want to leave. “I have an idea. How about if we play a game?”
“I can’t. My Mobiroid will die if I spend three hours playing –”
“Not those kinds of games,” I interject, even though a part of me wishes that I had thought of that earlier. “Have you heard of Two Truths and a Lie?”
April shakes her head. “No. What is it?”
“Okay,” I say, as I attempt to gather my thoughts. “I’m going to tell you three statements. Two of them are going to be truths, and one of them is going to be a lie. You need to guess which one is the lie. Are you ready?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” says April, but her face indicates that she isn’t. I’m sure she’ll catch on.
“So, the first statement is that I have a cat named Neville – who, by the way, is the greatest cat in the world.”
“That’s a lie,” April blurts out quickly.
“You might want to wait until I give you all three statements to make your guess,” I tell her, though her determination is endearing. April’s cheeks redden. I continue on, “The second statement is that I have a Bachelor’s degree in History. The third statement is that I used to be a blonde.”
April takes a moment to contemplate her answer. “The second statement is a lie. You have a degree in computer science – or something technical.”
I shake my head. “Actually, that’s a truth. I originally went to school for History, but it ended up being a terrible major. I couldn’t get a job that I could use it in, so I went back to school and got a Master’s degree in Information Technology with a specialty in Network Security.” I smile, unable to resist throwing in a bragging moment. “I went to school at Western University and got admitted into a specialized program for Network Security. I spent a year learning how to hack any computer on the planet, then another year learning how to safeguard against those hackers. I graduated at the top of my class.” I pause. “I was never a blonde, though.”
“Why would you major in History?” April asks skeptically. “Especially in this economy?”
“That’s a question for another time,” I say, unwilling to admit that it was because I was an eighteen-year-old idiot that just wanted to escape the life as a farm boy. “You’re up, Miss McIntyre.”
April glances around, as though she’s hoping that her surroundings would give her a clue on what information she should share. She begins slowly and hesitantly, “Okay. The first statement is that I’ve had dinner with the Prime Minister.” My jaw nearly drops in disbelief, though April continued on, “The second thing is that I was a cheerleader in high school. And last, I have six trophies from playing the piano.”
As it turns out, April was never a cheerleader.
She did, however, meet the Prime Minister; and when I stare at her in disbelief, she reminds me that she’s from a family of politicians.
The story was that she was twelve when her father had been invited to a fundraising event for one of the Prime Minister’s backers. In an attempt to sway her into following in his footsteps, he had brought her along. Instead, his plan had backfired. Rather than persuading her into a career of power and money, April had thrown a tantrum and the two of them were forced to leave early (“That’s when I realized that I shouldn’t be a politician when I grew up,” April admitted sheepishly). She joked that her father had never forgiven her for embarrassing him in front of the leader of the free world, but a part of me wonders if it still bothers her.
“What made you start working at the coffee shop?” I ask. I’m curious why a girl from a wealthy family would spend twenty hours a week serving coffee for minimum wage. Even if she had been cut off from her trust fund, she still had to be living comfortably.
April looks away. “It’s a long story.”
“Well, we’ve got nothing but time.”
April shakes her head. “Actually…”
In the time that we’ve been talking, we’ve been pushed from the outside corner of the building to the interior. I can see the ticket booth in front of us, and we’re close to hitting our destination.
“What time is it?” April asks.
I glance at my Mobiroid. I can’t believe how much time has passed. “Half-past four.”
April’s eyes widen. “I thought they said that the wait was only going to be three hours?”
I haven’t minded the wait. It’s been a great excuse to spend more time with April and get to know her better. She’s beautiful, fascinating, and our conversations have been intriguing. With newfound bravery, I find myself grasping her hand. “Didn’t even notice.”
We’re still holding hands when we finally make it to the ticket counter. I buy two tickets, but April has to coax me out of spending the rest of the money I made in overtime on a guided tour.
“Alright, time to see what this observation deck is all about,” I say excitedly as we present our tickets to the ticket checker. I turn my attention to the checker. “Is the view worth the three and a half hour wait?”
The checker shakes his head. “You won’t be going to the top of the building yet. There’s a presentation about the history of the observation deck, which has a line. In addition, there’s a line to get into the elevator.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” April exclaims. “We waited in line for three and half hours, just to pay to wait in more lines? What do I need to do to get to the observation deck?”
I pull her forward before the man has a chance to answer.
“It won’t be for much longer,” I promise. “We already made it this far.”
She groans when she sees the line to the presentation, but her attention is soon captured by the trivia on the wall. We take turns taking silly pictures in front of a cut-out of the world’s tallest man before a passerby sees us and offers to take a picture of us together. We’re in the middle of posing in front of a miniature replica of several of the tallest buildings in the Confederal District when we’re ushered into a dark theater.
The presentation is a movie projected on a screen that details a history of the building. A monotone narrator explains that the building was designed to house a major corporation and accommodate its rapid growth. We take turns attempting to mimic the narrator’s voice – deep, to the point that it sounds cartoonish – bursting into laughter until we’re nearly kicked out by a security guard.
The narrator finishes the presentation by explaining that the building’s rich history is what brings us there, and how he’s so happy to have everyone there (though he sounds anything but enthused). When the movie ends, we’re ushered into another line to the elevator.
“This is it,” April says with a grin. “After an entire afternoon of waiting.”
“Yeah, no kidding. We’ve been here for five hours now.”
When it’s our turn, we’re crammed into an elevator with a group of tourists. The elevator has two hundred stories to reach, and I prepare myself for the change in elevation. It takes another twenty minutes for the elevator to make it to the top, and we stand in silence while we try to avoid getting trampled in the crowd. April and I exchange glances as we wait to reach our destination.
When we get to the top, we’re greeted by specks of orange, purple, blue, and pink. We’ve arrived just in time to see the sunset, as it sets under the horizon and illuminates the city in an array of colors. The buildings – many made of glass – reflect these colors back, painting the city and brightening it like a paintbrush on a blank canvas.
“Wow,” I breathe.
April nods. “Yeah.”
I grab her hand and take her near a window. The city buzzes to life underneath us as we watch in complete awe. From above, we can see the millions of people flittering about, going through the motions of their lives in oblivion to the beauty that’s surrounding us.
“You know,” I say lightly. “From up here, it’s hard to believe that we have an overpopulation problem.” April is wistful but silent. I ask her, “What are you thinking about?”
She looks back at me. “I just had this crazy thought.”
She turns her attention back to the window. “Look around you, Roman. Below us lie the lives of 350 million people, spread across the Confederal Districts.” I can see it. “Some of them will live forever. Some won’t even live to see a day. But they’re all people that touch someone’s life in some way or another.” She closes her eyes. “I get it: 350 million is a lot, and more than our world can sustain. But I just had this thought that maybe if we all had good intentions – if we all decided that we wanted to leave the world a little better than before – it can be our greatest strength instead of our greatest weakness.”
I don’t know what to tell her. With those words, she just altered my view of the world; and I don’t know if there’s any way that I can turn back.
April looks back at me, a smile crossing her face. “Thanks for taking me here. It was definitely worth the five hour wait.”
My insides feel like they’ve been turned to pudding. “No problem.”
She turns her attention to her wrist and starts sifting through a series of prompts on her Mobiroid. “Let’s take a picture.”
My Mobiroid doesn’t have a camera, but April’s does. She attempts to take the picture from her wrist until I’ve deemed that her arms are too short. After struggling for another moment, she removes the device from her wrist and passes her Mobiroid to me. She gives me a brief tutorial, and I keep my finger on a digital button that she claims will take the picture.
“Okay,” I breathe. “I’m going to count up to three. One…”
“Just take the picture already.”
She glances up at me, a grin spreading on her face.
My thumb has barely grazed the button before I capture April’s lips in mine.