Date Published: September 21st, 2017
Publisher: Asset Creative House
The Hunger Games meets Romeo and Juliet in a stunning debut about a forbidden romance between a young activist and a government employee for a corrupt bureau that controls the population by deciding who lives and who dies.
Roman Irvine is a disgruntled IT Technician for the Divinity Bureau, a government agency that uses random selection to decide who lives and who dies. In a world where overpopulation has lead to pollution, a crippled economy, and a world in crisis, he’s accepted the bureau’s activities as a necessity… until he meets April McIntyre.
April has every reason to be suspicious of Roman. He works for the Divinity Bureau, which sent her father to an early grave. But he’s also sweet and loyal, and unbeknownst to her, he saved her life. As Roman and April fall deeper in love, the deeper they’re thrust into the politics of deciding who lives and who dies. Someone wants April dead. And the bureau’s process of random selection may not be so random after all…
‘Leave it to Finn to waste taxpayer money on an asinine piece of crap,’ I grumble to myself when my Mobiroid goes off. It’s not the best time for me to be taking phone calls, not while my hand is inside a million sterling machine.
“Withered piece of…” I begin, but I stop myself when I realize that I’ve caught the attention of a chairman for District 202. He’s passing me by with a cup of joe in hand, so I use my free hand to give him an awkward wave. Hopefully, it doesn’t kill me.
Most days, I’m glued to the translucent device, literally. I wear it on my wrist, but a wireless earpiece is connected to it so that I can make calls, listen to shows, and make commands. Maybe that’s why I forgot to take it off before I started my work on the control panel.
The good news is that it didn’t touch any of the wires, so I didn’t electrocute myself to death. The bad news is that I lost grip on the wire on my hand, so all my hard-earned progress from the last two hours has been lost.
The automatic door is in its sixth straight month of giving me hell. I’m one breakdown away from tearing it down and replacing it with a fucking curtain. Per my boss, Finn Hannigan, it’s supposed to be better for the sake of security and convenience. We work for the Divinity Bureau, and it’s necessary to have state of the art protection.
Behind that intimidating metal door is the headquarters for The Divinity Bureau’s Midwest state. This office houses all the bureau’s Chairmen who have districts within our state, 140 districts out of the 560 interspersed throughout the Confederal Districts. It’s also the central office for our Regional Chairman, Gideon Hearthstrom. Life and death decisions are made behind these doors, and Finn thinks that it’s necessary that the people making those decisions are well-protected. I can’t say I disagree.
The problem is that it never works. When we first got the machine, I had to upload the facial images of every single employee that work for the Bureau, which was about twenty-five hours of repetitive grunt work. After that, the sensor broke – twice. Then the deadbolt broke, and we had twelve full hours of virtually no security. Today, the final straw came when I found out that the camera’s screen broke. In this day and age, that shouldn’t even be possible.
I clench my jaw. The vibrating on my Mobiroid is still going. I’m not in the mood to talk to anyone, especially now that I know that my plans to leave at five o’clock have been tossed out the window. Still, I probably should see who it is. I give my wrist a glance. Immediately, I’m startled out of my bad mood.
Seeing that name on my wrist is like seeing a ghost. There must be a huge mistake. For one, I don’t know how he has my number. Two, as our Regional Chairman, I’d think that he wouldn’t have time to be dealing with someone as low on the totem pole as me. He’s supposed to be busy with appeals, meetings, and making sure that our state doesn’t overpopulate.
I briefly entertain the thought of letting it go to voicemail, but it takes half a second to realize my career might be resting on this one phone call. I clear my throat, press the “Accept” button that’s flashing on my wrist, and the call forwards to my earpiece.
“IT, this is Roman.”
There’s a long pause on the other end.
“I thought you were the office assistant,” comes a deep, gruff voice on the other end.
I glance at the caller ID again. Maybe I am being prank-called.
I’m slow and deliberate in my words. “I’m…. I’m an IT Technician.”
I might as well be an office assistant, considering I make twelve sterling an hour. In this economy, that’s barely enough to pay my rent.
“Oh,” Gideon says. “Finn says that you’re an office assistant.”
I smack my head against my hand. It nearly knocks out my earpiece.
“I don’t know why,” I say, all but seething. I clear my throat. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Yeah, can you tell me where I can find Finn?”
I wonder if I’d feel better if I threw my earpiece off. It’s the size of a coin so it may not make an enormous impact. “He’s gone for the day.”
“Does he not work on Wednesday’s?”
“He’s usually gone by four.”
“Why doesn’t anyone seem to work past four these days?”
“I’m working,” I point out, a bit self-serving. I hear a huff on the other end. In my earpiece, it sounds like he’s breathing in my ear. I shake off a shudder.
“Well, the chairman for the two hundred and twentieth district thought that it would be a fantastic idea to pay the West state a visit during election time,” Gideon says begrudgingly. “I was under the impression that I could run the election report – and yet, apparently, I don’t have permission! I’m the Regional Chairman!”
I shift my feet. Technically, Gideon isn’t supposed to have permission. Running the election report for individual districts is a job for the district chairmen, but technically, Gideon is over them. Does that mean I should grant him access?
“Do you need me to fix it?”
There’s a pause. As soon as the words come out of my mouth, it hits me that I shouldn’t have mentioned that. My resume indicates that I have a Master’s degree in Information Technology, so it’s obvious that I know how to bypass security. I also have Finn’s log-on information. Neither seems like things that I should have in a government agency.
“Get a hold of Finn,” Gideon says after a moment of silence. “He should have access. If not, I guess Hemmingsworth’s constituents will deal with long lines and traffic for the next three months!”
There’s a click on the other end, followed by silence. I let out a breath that I didn’t realize I was holding.
Two hundred years ago, there was a place called North Amerigo (or was it North America? I can never remember the name). Once, it was the home of the greatest scientific discoveries, from space travel to quantum physics to genetics. The most significant development of them all was the discovery of BIONs, which allowed for human immortality. For the first time, people were healthy, young, and immortal – but this development came at a cost.
Soon, the population exploded into levels that were hardly sustainable. The overpopulation problem in North Amerigo was only fueled by global warming, which caused rising sea levels and a dramatic loss of land. A war ensued between the upper-class citizens – who were immortal and had obtained much of the remaining resources to sell for profit – and the lower-class citizens – who were poor, unable to afford these resources, and usually unable to afford immortality. From the chaos, a country called the Confederal Districts emerged.
The Confederal Districts did two things: they divided the region into five hundred and sixty districts, which split into four states. They also lowered the cost of immortality to make it accessible, while establishing the Divinity Bureau to control overpopulation.
The Divinity Bureau holds an election every quarter. Every quarter, by random selection, a certain number of names are picked (there used to be a lottery ball machine, but then the district chairmen grew tired of selecting thousands of names and paper became a scarce resource; so, they use a computer now). That number is determined by factors such as the birth rate, population growth, and so on – all determined by the district’s chairmen.
If you can afford immortality and you choose to opt into it, it comes at a cost: you will be put on this list. And if your name is selected, you will die by lethal injection. Fortunately, with millions of people on the list, your odds of being selected are low – at least, until fate catches up with you.
If you haven’t opted into immortality, you will be placed on the list as soon as you turn one hundred – and the only ones that don’t opt into immortality are the ones that can’t afford it.
Fortunately – or unfortunately, depending on the time of year – I’m one of those people.
I spend all of forty minutes trying to figure out why Gideon’s not able to run the report. I’m locked out of the permissions system, and by the time I’ll be able to figure out how to bypass security, it’ll be too late to call Gideon back and let him know that he can run the report. Instead, I use Finn’s log-on information (which he sent me in an email about six months ago, after he couldn’t figure out why an advertisement to “Meet Real District 520 Women” kept popping up – in my mind, I could see my Network Security professor shaking his head).
The report isn’t complicated. It uses a query to select a list of people randomly. The people are sorted by last name, first name, and birth date. The people on the list are known as “elects,” and they have thirty days to report to the closest regional headquarters – from the Western state in District 530, the Eastern state in District 1, the Southern state in District 333, and, finally, the Midwest. We’re in the windy, smoky District 200.
I’m trying not to think about the fact that thousands of lives are in my hands. It’s a necessary evil. The world is overpopulated, and there’s no way around it. I breathe polluted air, live in a crippled economy (I have a Master’s degree, and I still only make twelve sterling an hour), and spend an hour in traffic just to drive five miles. The worst part is that every time I step over a sleeping homeless person outside my apartment building (which happens at least once a week), I’m forced to think about how lucky I am to have a two-hundred-square-foot apartment in a building with hallways that smell of smoke and urine. It could always be worse.
With that in mind, a sheet of data appears in front of me. 10,421 names on the list. Easy. I can’t believe that chairmen and chairwomen spend their careers stressing over this every quarter.
I’m in the process of drafting an email to Gideon to let him know that I finished the report (though I conveniently leave out the part about how I did so), yet before I can hit the “send” button, curiosity gets the best of me. Who is on the list?
I do a search on my name. Irvine is a distinguishable last name, and the only people with it is my family in District 402. It’s silly, as I know that it’s not possible for me to be elected; but I want to see it with my own eyes.
I do see one familiar name: Neal O’Donnell. He’s an actor for a thriller movie series known as the Insomnia series. What a shame, as I was looking forward to the next installment.
Still – there isn’t anyone that I know or recognize, which isn’t a huge surprise. The only people I know in the Midwest is my ex-girlfriend and her three friends, and I’m not on good enough terms with either of them to be horribly sad if I see them.
I’m ready to log out for the day when I see a name: April McIntyre. I casually glance at her birth date and stop, certain that my eyes are deceiving me. In a list of ten thousand names, the girl I’m looking at is nineteen years old.
That can’t be right. Doctors won’t inject BIONs in anyone under the age of twenty-five, as her brain hasn’t finished developing. Maybe a filter is broken. As an IT Technician, isn’t it my job to fix it?
No, a voice in the back of my head tells me. The Divinity Bureau is a government system that’s been running for as long as I could remember. It can’t be an accident.
She’s meant to be on the list.
She’s expected to die.
I try to shake the gnawing feeling inside of me. Computers have glitches all the time. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have needed to go to school for it for seven years. My specialty, Network Security, is solely dedicated to exploiting those glitches. And yet, I can’t find anyone else on the list that stands out the way she does. Most of the people on the list are over one hundred years old.
On impulse, I copy her name from the list and into a search engine. A second later, the profile of a girl with dark brown hair and a smile appears on my screen.
Birthday: April 30th
Parents: Henrik McIntyre and Macy McIntyre
Henrik McIntyre. I know that name. He’s a famed politician in the Republic party. Outside of District 200, he – and other Members of the Republic Party – aren’t very popular, primarily because they still use the old methods of individual reasoning to make decisions. Other parties defer to more advanced forms of decision making, ranging from AI to computer polling systems.
The last time I saw him in the news was a year ago when he was elected – and not in the way that Henrik was likely accustomed to every eight years. He was the youngest person in nearly a century to be chosen by the Divinity Bureau. Reportedly, it was because of his position on the Committee for Population Regulation. It explained so little – and so much.
I bring my attention back to April. She’s a freshman at the Midwest University, located in District 201. She works part-time at a coffee shop near her campus, though I’m having trouble figuring out why the daughter of a wealthy politician would need to work for minimum wage. Her social media platforms contain few posts but plenty of pictures of herself – ranging from selfies in her car to photos with friends (though her activity seems to have dwindled in the last year). There’s a lot of selfies. A lot. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that she’s a typical nineteen-year-old girl – which is why it doesn’t make sense that she’s on the list.
But I can find out why. I have a degree in Network Security. I’ve spent years studying this. Breaking into systems that I’m not supposed to see is my specialty – and kind of a hobby if I’m entirely honest with myself. The downside is that I’d need to find the glitch. Once I unlocked the encryption, I’d need to scroll through layers upon layers of code to figure out where the injection happened – something that I don’t have time to do. Deleting her name, on the other hand, would only take minutes. The problem is that I’m not sure if I should.
I’m stuck. The last thing I want to do is anger Gideon, but I can’t let an innocent girl die on my watch. The only options I have is leaving it alone – or fixing it and hoping for the best. But without knowing who April McIntyre is, I can’t make that decision.
And yet I have access to her social media platforms, I realize.
An idea hits me. It’s the worst idea I’ve ever had, and I may get arrested for it. My hope is that karma is in my favor.
I leave the office quickly, like a criminal trying to sneak away from the scene before I get caught - so quick, that I forget to put on my face mask. But the smell of smog and dust is a reminder; I pull my plastic cover out of my jacket.
“Watch where you’re going, you BION bot!”
I look at my feet and notice a sleeping bag under my feet. Curled up inside the sleeping bag is an old man – wrinkled, gray-haired, and wearing a flimsy paper mask. He’s obviously not immortal, and he thinks he’s insulting me by calling me the common term the have-not’s call the immortal (the idea was to infer that they weren’t fully human because a good portion of their body consisted of nanobots). My ex-girlfriend, Jenneka, used to respond by calling them “weathered wastes.” But I’m not immortal, so I’m not willing to sink that low.
“Sorry,” I mutter, then walk away as quickly as I can.
I have a plan in place to meet the girl. The way I’m going to do that is by visiting her workplace, which she has clearly listed on all her social media platforms. Twenty minutes ago, it sounded way less creepy in my head; but now that I’m walking out of the building and into the parking lot, I’m sure I’m making a huge mistake.
All I need is sixty seconds with the girl. With those sixty seconds, I should have an impression of whether I should delete her name from the list. From there, I can either return to the office or go home. Either way, I should be able to rest easy tonight.
I take an elevator to the top floor of the parking garage. My car is a parked on the roof, where I hope every day that there’s enough sunlight to charge my car. My vehicle resembles a pod. It only fits two people, and the reflective glass doubles as a solar panel to power the vehicle. The problem is that I had gotten into a car accident six months ago. There’s a dent on the right side of the car, which makes it almost impossible for it to charge from that side. Thus, I have to keep it on the roof and hope that there’s enough sunlight to power it throughout the day. I also must hope that it doesn’t die in the middle of traffic.
April works at an old-school coffee house called Dang Coffee, located near Midwest University in District 201. It’s ten miles away – a short stretch where I used to live, but one that takes nearly an hour in the daily traffic of the Greater District 200 Area. It’s been close to a decade since I’ve been to an old-school coffee house. My hometown in District 402 had one that had survived the Confederal War, but it was primarily a tourist stop. Most coffee shops these days have been dominated by automation. You punch in an order, any customizations, and a machine makes it for you. It’s faster, easier, and cheaper than waiting for some kid to make it.
My best guess is that April is a maintenance technician, though April doesn’t seem too tech-savvy. Still, first impressions can always be wrong.
As it turns out, my first impression is wrong.
After battling a self-driving luxury Benz for a parking spot, I walk into a coffee shop. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee infiltrates my nose. I look for a machine and a head of brown hair, but instead, I see a counter, a blonde-haired boy – and a strung-out line.
I shuffle my feet awkwardly. I step on my toes to see if the girl is hovering behind the counter, but I don’t see anyone but the blonde boy. I recognize him from a few of April McIntyre’s photos. He has curly blonde hair and bright blue eyes, which makes him impossible to miss. Still, no sign of the girl.
Well, shoot. This trip was obviously a terrible idea. I suppose the best thing I should do is what I should have done all along: leave it alone. It’s not my battle to fight.
I fall in line to grab a cup of coffee before I head home. I’m standing behind a group of college students, and the line is moving at a sluggish pace – far slower than if a computer had run the store. I also can’t help but notice how expensive the drinks are. Five sterling for a cup of joe?
“How do we order?” I ask a boy standing in front of me.
The boy glances at his friends then back at me. A bemused grin crosses his face. “You tell the cashier, naturally.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just punch it into the kiosk? Why is he punching it in for us?”
A friend of the boy in front of me snickers. “You see, Quinn? This is why our society has so many problems! People don’t know how to talk to each other!”
“Yeah,” the boy chimes. “Back in the day, they didn’t have coffee kiosks.”
I stare at the boy blankly. Of course, I know that coffee kiosks are an invention of the last century; but I also know that people used to create paintings on caves. It doesn’t mean that those traditions need to continue, particularly since other mediums in both forms developed. Still, it explains why the coffee shop is still in business. Located near a university, it clearly caters to that demographic.
When it’s my turn to order, I ask the blonde-haired boy for a hot caramel macchiato. The cashier marks the cup and sets it in a line that’s practically overflowing off the counter. I glance at the row of irate customers. If I’d gone to a regular coffee shop, I’d already be on my way home.
Knowing that I’m going to be waiting for a long while, I turn my wrist to check my text messages while I wait for my order. I don’t have enough friends in the Midwest state to warrant many messages, but my mom does text me on a weekly basis. This time, it’s because my student loan payment is due.
The thought makes a pit form in my stomach. Would I ever catch a break? Once, I had hoped that a Master’s degree would guarantee me a chance at making it in this poor economy; but at times, I think it made it worse. Sure, I have a job. I have a roof over my head, yet all my money goes towards food and bills. I may be able to make a living, but I would hardly call it making a life for myself.
I’m in the middle of replying to my mother’s text message when the back door flew open.
“Where the hell have you been?” the cashier barks, loud enough that my head shoots up in the air.
“Shut up, Tate. I’m here.”
As soon as I see her, all thoughts of replying to my mother’s text message are lost. Her pictures have not done her justice. The first thing I notice is her eyes: steel-gray and a bit too large for her face. Her hair is pulled into a loose braid, a few strands flying free as she races towards the espresso machine. She picks up my empty caramel macchiato cup, and I get a glimpse of her up close. She’s not wearing any makeup; or, if she is, it’s subtle. She meets my gaze as she tops my drink off with a sprinkle of caramel sauce. She smiles – a subtle upwards turn of her lips that may not be directed at me, but I don’t care. As soon as I see it, my stomach churns.
I need to say something. Anything. I can talk about the weather, but that’s cliché. I try to think about what interests I had seen on the girl’s social media.
The realization hits me like a punch in the stomach, knocking the air out of my lungs.
Oh God, I’ve seen her social media profile.
I followed her to work.
I am the worst human being on the planet. Can I redeem myself after this? The only conversation topic that comes to mind is about coffee.
“Can you make that decaf?” I blurt out, not thinking about the implications.
The girl glances at me and back at the near-completed drink in her hand. Her brows furrow in annoyance. “Excuse me?”
Her grey eyes meet mine. My heart is thumping in my chest, reverberating in my ear. I don’t know how to talk to attractive women – especially one that looks as infuriated as she does at that moment.
“Well, I – uh – I just realized that it’s past seven o’clock,” I say, word vomiting the first thing that comes to mind. “I can’t fall asleep when I drink caffeine. Not that I mind staying up late. I just need to work early in the morning.” Pause. “Sorry, I’m used to going to real coffee shops…”
If I wasn’t already nailing the coffin, then I’m sure my last comment would put me six feet under. April is glaring at me as she pours my drink down the drain.
“I’m sorry,” I say meekly. “That – that came out wrong.”
“It’s fine,” April responds, though her tone says that it’s anything but. Maybe the boy in line was right about people not being able to talk to each other. If that’s the case, then I can blame society for my lack of ability to talk to beautiful women.
I’m ready to run out of the coffee shop and back into my work-sleep-pay-bills routine. But then I remember why I’m there. The girl that’s glaring at me right now has no clue that I can save her life. That thought makes me feel like I have a lot more power – something that I’ve lacked for my twenty-five years of existence.
I glance back at her, right as she’s pouring steamed milk into my cup. I swallow a lump in my throat and try again. “So – uh – do you go to school around here?”
I know the answer already, but it’s an easy topic of conversation.
April shrugs. “Sort of. Why?”
Her answer is confusing. Didn’t I just read that she was a freshman at Midwest University? “Sort of? What does that mean?”
“It means that I haven’t fully committed to it.”
She’s being vague, dodging questions in the way a girl that’s grown up in the limelight would. I can also tell that she doesn’t fully trust me. That’s understandable. She did just meet me, and I haven’t given her any reason to trust me. I decide to try another angle.
“That’s smart. College is expensive. I mean – not undergraduate school, if you go to a public university…” More words are coming out, faster than I can think. “Which I didn’t, because I’m a dumbass. I was hoping that if I studied computers for six years, I’d be able to find a good job, which is like finding bigfoot in this economy. My mom thinks that I just signed up for graduate school to procrastinate on the entering the real world. I don’t belive she’s wrong. I just think –”
I stop when I realize that April had stopped making my drink. Instead, she’s staring at me – holding a hand up to her mouth and attempting to stifle a giggle.
“Are you laughing at me?” I ask, my face heating.
The words make her laugh come out in full force. I don’t know what I did – or if I should do it again.
“Sorry,” April apologizes. Her cheeks are pink from laughter. “It’s just, well, your face is pretty red right now.”
Maybe I shouldn’t say anything more. Maybe I should just crawl into a hole.
“Sorry,” I say, unsure if that’s the right thing to say. She did just apologize to me. “I didn’t mean to…” I trail off. The ideal situation in my head is to say that I didn’t mean to make myself sound like an idiot in front of a gorgeous woman, but that would be cheesy.
April shakes her head. “You don’t have to apologize. Haven’t you ever heard the ancient phrase, ‘the customer is always right?’”
“No, but I’ve heard different variations. The one I hear most frequently is that the customer is an idiot.”
April giggles. She turns her attention back to my drink, but I want to keep her talking.
“What’s your name?” I ask, even though I already know it.
“April,” she replies. “Yours?”
She pauses, glancing at the drink in her hand.
“Oh wait. Does it relate to an ancient empire of some sorts?”
“It’s Roman. I’d be impressed, but I can see it clearly written on the cup.”
April puts her hands up in the air in mock surrender. “You caught me, Roman.” She turns her attention back to the drink, and the annoyance appears to have diminished. “I still haven’t figured out what I want to do with the rest of my life. My…” She glances at me, no doubt internally debating on how much information to give me. “My mom wants me to follow in my dad’s footsteps. You see, he passed away last year, and his career was…” She pauses, eying me. I don’t divulge that I know that her dad is Henrik McIntyre. “Well, I guess you can say it was a family legacy. I’m not sure if it’s for me; so, I’m just taking two classes and working here. It’s not a bad way to pass the time.”
If I had any doubts about April’s mortality, they’re diminished with her words. Even if she had found a doctor to render her immortal – and I’m certain she could, given her family’s connections – she doesn’t even know what she wants to do with her life. Immortality is out of the question.
The thought crosses my mind of how fortunate she is that she can decide whenever she wants to be immortal. She can pick an age and stick to it. From what I knew about Henrik, he continued his aging to appeal to the voters that wanted someone that looked older. For most, the choice isn’t given to them.
“You still have plenty of time,” I say. I expected the tone to come out more bitterly, but it doesn’t. “I didn’t declare my major until my junior year. Both of my parents are potato farmers in District 402. I decided early on that it wasn’t the life for me, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
I leave out the part about moving halfway across the country to be closer to my then-girlfriend, Jenneka. We split up six months ago, so it’s hardly relevant.
April laughs. “Potato farmers?”
“Yeah. I’ll never eat another potato again.” I still associate my childhood with agrichemicals and greenhouse skyscrapers.
She hands me a cup of a steaming hot caramel macchiato. In the look she gives me, I understand why people pay extra to come to an old-fashioned coffee shop. The human touch – and the subsequent human connection at that moment – can never be replicated in a machine. I can see myself coming back.
April glances at the line of cups behind her. “I suppose I should get back to work. I guess I’ll see you around?”
I take a sip of the drink and give her a nod. Perfection. I’m definitely coming back. “Yeah. You’ll definitely be seeing me.”She has no idea how true those words are, nor does she know how I’m about to make sure that it happens. But first, I need to make a returning trip to the office.
About the Author
Tessa Clare is the author of The Divinity Bureau. When she’s not writing, she’s an entrepreneur, an activist, a speaker, and the Managing Director of Asset Creative House. Throughout her early career, she was a concession stand attendant, a busgirl, a barista, a player’s club representative for a casino, and an administrative assistant. She also spent years working as a manager for Vacasa, whose business model and revolutionary marketing strategies would later inspire the groundwork for Asset Creative House. The Divinity Bureau is Tessa’s debut novel about a forbidden love between a young activist and a government employee working for a corrupt bureau, set in a dystopian world.