The Becoming of the Twenty

Tales from the Ecliptic
The Becoming of the Twenty



On Magnolia Station, twenty-year-old Lune Lagrange can’t even choose her own breakfast. Not without the AI’s approval. She can’t chose her duty assignment, either.

The AI will do that, after it crunches every piece of data about her.

But what Lune really needs—according to her friend Ridian—is a burger, a shot of rum, and a night of fun with the wrong guy. Unfortunately, the AI has neglected to match her. If she canoodles outside its purview, Lune risks tainting her data, her future matches, and her eventual happiness with the right guy.

But when the AI encounters a snafu during Lune’s placement, she must rethink the AI’s choices and her own.

Screw the data.

What does a damn computer program know about happiness, anyway?

The Becoming of the Twenty
A Tale from the Ecliptic


On the most important morning of her life, Lune Lagrange couldn’t even choose her own breakfast. She sat at the kitchen table in her faded blue jumpsuit, her lips pursed as the smell of plain oatmeal wafted through the kitchen unit. A drone whirled in the corner, clinging to the wall of appliances, all stainless steel hunks of metal. The drone’s body spun, cleaning their surfaces with a sluggish chugga chugga chugga.

Her father bustled through the space, dressed in the vibrant golden jumpsuit of the College. His engineering patch perched proudly upon his breast, stitched in golden thread. His shiny black boots thudded heavily against the metal floor as a beep cut through the kitchen unit. He opened the Foodcraft’s door with a muffled creak and withdrew a tray, then carried it to the table and settled it before Lune.

She frowned at the large bowl of oatmeal.

It was plain—just as she’d feared.

“Honey, I tried to program those fluffy pancakes you like so much, but the Foodcraft spit this out instead. The Ecliptic knows you can’t handle anything else this morning.” Her father returned to the Foodcraft. Buttons beeped as he programmed the next selection. “You have to eat something. Do you want me to try again?”

Lune pushed away the tray and rubbed at her eyes. “Why bother? The computer has decided. No matter what you program for me, it’ll just make more oatmeal.”

“Probably. You could always steal one of your mother’s pancakes, though.”

Her father winked.

“Why bother? I’ll just throw it up. The Ecliptic is always right, isn’t it?”

“Ah, don’t let your nerves get the better of you, Lune,” her father chided. “Today is an exciting day. The best day! The day you and your classmates have waited for your whole lives. You’re all twenty now. And this morning at the Becoming of the Twenty ceremony, the Ecliptic will reveal your true destinies.”

“On stage in front of everyone.”

“Yes, on stage in front of everyone. Every monitor on Magnolia Station will broadcast the ceremony. In a rainbow of flashing pixels, the Ecliptic will confirm what everyone has always known. You’ll be an engineer, just like your mother.”

“But what if I’m not?”

“Then you’ll become an engineering professor, just like your dad. The Ecliptic is never wrong. Not even about your oatmeal.” Her father gave her a reassuring grin and turned back to the Foodcraft.

Lune snatched up her spoon and dug into her breakfast.

The blandness hit her tongue.

The blandness hit her stomach.

The blandness came up again, sticking in her throat.

Her father’s words had only calmed her mind, and then only slightly. The Becoming of the Twenty had crept up on her—not like the surprise kiss of death, but like a lurking monster, always there, always breathing heavily in the corner, always drooling and leering every time she opened a textbook.

And today, the Ecliptic would finally attack.

Her stomach churned at the thought.

What if the computer decided she should become a janitor?

Lune cringed. She’d spent the first twenty years of her life engaged in one enterprise—becoming the best engineer she could be, perhaps even a great one, just like her mother. But if the Ecliptic declared that her happiness lay in cleaning, she’d spend the rest of her life dashing about Magnolia Station, attending to everything the drones could not.

Plus, she’d trade her boring blue student’s jumpsuit for the even more boring brown of the Cleaning Department.

The smell of burning maple syrup cut through her thoughts.

Lune hopped up from the table, her blonde hair curling around her face. “Dad, how do you manage to break Foodie every morning?”

“I don’t break the Foodcraft every morning,” her father grumbled, opening its door. Smoke billowed from the appliance. Several deflated pancakes sat upon the tray inside, each flattened to the thickness of wire. Two thin strips of coal sat beside it, likely slices of burned bacon. Two yellow smears adorned the edge.

“It’s the coolant system acting up again,” Lune said as she nudged her father out of the way.

“It’s not the coolant system.”

Lune ignored him and yanked open the bottom cover of the Foodcraft. She tossed it on the counter behind them, the metal crashing against metal. Cramming her fingers inside the unit, she grabbed the coolant system and tugged it out, turning the fist-sized part over and over in her palms.

She spotted the coolant temperature sensor almost immediately, wobbling languidly in its housing. Thumping it with her finger, she waited for the needle to move freely.

She cut her eyes to her father. “Told you.”

“Maybe you’re the one who breaks the Foodie,” he said gruffly. “I don’t recall teaching my students that brute force can mend a Foodcraft.”

“Maybe you should.” Lune replaced the coolant system in its housing. After the brackets snapped back into place, she replaced the cover, washed her hands, and sat back at the table to her oatmeal.

She ladled up a huge self-congratulatory spoonful.

Her father’s thumbs brushed over the Foodcraft as he reprogrammed his breakfast. “What did I say? You’re a natural, Lune. The Ecliptic will say what we’ve all known, ever since you chewed on your first piece of rubber hosing.” He spun and pointed at his chin. “Drool everywhere, Lune, all over your face. I warned your mother not to spread the drone parts out on the table. You climbed up on a chair because you had to see, just like always, and then you picked up the hosing and chewed until she finished. We have a video somewhere on the family hard drive. I expect to show it to your mate whenever the Ecliptic gets around to matching you.”

Lune cast her eyes back to her oatmeal.

Her stomach churned anew.

Everyone found out their occupation at age twenty, the product of two decades of data, statistics, and a very sophisticated algorithm run by the station’s AI. The very same program kicked out a person’s mate, but that did not happen at twenty. It happened whenever the computer got around to it, making its decision on any day of any year. She’d heard once that the program had not matched one couple until they turned eighty-four.

Eighty-four!

Lune spooned another bite of oatmeal, shaking her head at the thought. She couldn’t imagine surviving to middle age without a spouse.

Actually, she could.

She could imagine it very well.

The Ecliptic had not even matched her for a first date yet. Some of her peers had gone for theirs at thirteen. Some had already married. But apparently, the computer didn’t want to experiment with her.

Perhaps the AI busied itself with the other hundred thousand souls on Magnolia Station.

Perhaps her first date—and future mate—would have to wait.

If the Ecliptic matched her at all.

The Foodcraft beeped again. Her father pulled out his breakfast and sat beside Lune, his tray clattering on the steel table.

Her mother bustled into the room, her jet-black jumpsuit sleek across her body, her engineering patch etched in metal rather than thread. She sniffed the air as her boots clomped across the kitchen.

A hint of a smile grazed her mouth, hidden by a lock of blonde hair.

She said nothing as she crossed to the Foodcraft. More beeping sounded in the kitchen unit as she pressed the buttons.

“Our daughter is worried,” her father said after he took his first bite.

“Our daughter is always worried.”

“Ah, yes, but this time she’s worried about the ceremony.”

“Worry is irrational. I don’t need a fancy AI program to tell me where the data leads—not on this, anyway.”

The Foodcraft beeped. Her mother took out her tray and settled it beside them. Snatching up her fork, she cut through a stack of fluffy pancakes. She’d topped hers with green apples, cinnamon, sugar, and slowly melting whipped cream. “I can’t believe the Ecliptic let me program this. I must have worked harder than I thought yesterday, installing those stabilizing thrusters.”

“Take up pacing.” Her father grinned. “That’s what I do. The computer lets me eat whatever I want, whenever I want.”

“Yeah, well, the computer is an asshole.” Her mother eyes slid to Lune. “I’m surprised it didn’t add something to your breakfast. You’ve gotten much too thin. Your jumpsuit bags around your waist these days.”

“The Ecliptic knows she wouldn’t eat it. It’s not going to waste any food on a lost cause.”

Lune frowned at her father’s choice of words.

A lost cause?

What if the computer said as much that morning?

“I’ll eat a big lunch,” Lune promised.

“I’m holding you to that,” her mother replied, barely chewing as she scarfed down her breakfast.

Lune’s eyes strayed from her oatmeal to the station time perched above the suite door and back again with every bite.

Eight o’clock passed by much too quickly.

Eight thirty loomed.

Her father finished his meal and hopped up from the table. He inserted his tray into the Cleanbot and walked away, the machine gurgling and thunking as it broke down the elements for reuse.

Lune, unable to eat more, stood up as well. She loaded her bowl and tray into the Cleanbot after the machine completed its cycle. Her mother swallowed her last bite and piled her tray on top, programming the machine to run the load.

“We leave in five minutes,” she declared, speaking over the Cleanbot as it began its work.

Lune scampered to her room, an empty space small enough for her to touch both walls, so long as she stretched her arms wide enough.

“Bathroom,” she said as she trudged inside.

The steel walls shifted with a slight groan. The outline of her foldable bed retreated. A toilet unit now whirled in the corner, its fluid sloshing underneath the lid. A row of cabinets clinked into place beside the door.

“Toothbrush.”

A cabinet clicked open with a muffled pop.

As Lune snatched up her toothbrush, a sink emerged from the wall automatically, the water flickering on the second she approached. After giving her teeth a quick scrub, she dropped the toothbrush into a dispenser beside the sink. Sterilization fluid flooded the chamber then drained out again.

The dispenser opened.

Lune snatched up her toothbrush and returned it to the cabinet. The sink retreated the second she grabbed her hairbrush.

She returned to the mirror, brushing out her blonde locks.

She turned her body to the side and studied her waist.

Her mother had spoken the truth. Her student jumpsuit had begun to bag.

Lune replaced her hairbrush and shuffled from the room. She tried to smile as her father patted her back. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

The little group ventured into the corridor, the crowd swallowing them before their suite door closed with a grinding of gears. Every occupant of Residential Deck Theta trudged throughout the space, all dressed in a flurry of jumpsuits, most black since the area belonged to the Engineering Division. Celebration lights twinkled above them, casting multicolored beams on the floor. Each housing twisted and turned, as if the light danced purely for the station’s pleasure.

The Ecliptic pumped an oldies tune through the chip in her ear.

Lune flicked a switch on her watch, silencing the music. The Ecliptic did not understand her mood this morning, no matter how many psychologists and statisticians tinkered with the AI.

She could only hope it would understand her calling much better.

Lune and her parents slowed their pace at the airlock, the crowd bottlenecking at the entrance to the main station hub.

More lights flashed.

Hundreds of drones zoomed through the air, their surfaces empty as they returned to their home bases, resetting themselves for the celebration.

If only one could have stopped before her with a calming pill.

Or a drink.

Lune’s stomach churned again, oatmeal hopping in her stomach as she and her parents finally crossed into the central hub. Jumpsuits no longer swirled in a thick blob of black, as they had in the residence deck. The crowd had become whirling brushstrokes of color, brushstrokes of various sizes as each person sought out their department or division and clumped together.

Restaurants and storefronts loomed around the hub, all open, all brightly lit, all manned by auto-registers and drones for the holiday. Other chambers remained open as well, the spaces reserved and named for all the various divisions and departments on the station. The Engineering Division had their space on the fifth floor, a bar called the Circuit Board. Computers and workstations filled half the space. Tables filled the rest. Lune had peeked inside many times, dreaming of ordering her first drink and meal as an engineer.

Perhaps she’d get her first chance that afternoon.

Lune and her parents hurried along a balcony until they reached a staircase, then jogged down the steps until they came to the hub’s ground floor.

Her breakfast churned again as they stepped past the brown jumpsuits of the Cleaning Department.

It churned even harder after they reached the auditorium. Only the Twenty and their families had seats. The rest of the station would crowd around the monitors in their respective clubrooms, like the Circuit Board, or eagerly watch outside in the hub, grouped by occupation. Everyone longed to see which graduate or graduates would become part of their teams this year.

“I have to find Mr. Barlow,” she told her parents.

Both waved as she left them at the front doors. She cut down another hallway, following a few other students in similar faded blue jumpsuits. The group stopped before a door with a sign marked To Stage.

They slipped inside as the door opened. The teaching staff had not filled the room with furniture or mirrors. Only nervous graduates inhabited the space.

And one bouncing with excitement.

Ridian stood on her tiptoes, her black curls whipping about her face as she searched the crowd. Though nearly eight hundred students would attend the Becoming ceremony, the graduates would do so in eight waves. One hundred would join departments throughout the station at precisely nine o’clock, including Lune and Ridian. The whole station would then break for tea. Another hundred graduates would sit upon the stage at ten, followed by cake. The next hundred would receive their assignments immediately before lunch.

More students and tea and cake would pass in the afternoon, alternating throughout the day until the last group joined their new departments. Then—and only then—would the residents of Magnolia Station begin the true celebration. Every Foodcraft in every restaurant in the central hub would pump out a rainbow of colorful drinks and moan-worthy food, guaranteed to make all their introductions smoother.

If not a little more embarrassing the morning after.

Of course, for some, the party had already started.

Ridian crooked a finger.

Lune grinned and threaded through the other hundred graduates, most broken off into pairs or little groups. She’d barely reached her best friend’s side before Ridian tugged two small vials from her pocket—an act that barely reduced the gaping bulge and the clattering of glass still inside.

“I figured you’d need this,” Ridian said, a naughty gleam dancing in her eyes as she passed a vial to Lune. “I hacked our unit’s Foodie and made them last night when we were still nineteen.”

“You could have programmed it legally this morning.”

“I know, but things aren’t as fun when they’re legal.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get caught.”

“You always say that.”

“Because one day it’s going to be true.” Lune took the vial and chugged its contents. The sweet taste of banana hit her tongue, followed by a hint of rum. “This is amazing!” she whispered, licking the top of the bottle.

“I know, right?” Ridian giggled. After fishing in her pocket, she handed Lune a second vial. “Nove, the bartender over at Retrograde, created it yesterday. He’s going to debut it after the ceremony.”

“And he just happened to give you the recipe?”

“I got more than the recipe, little lady. I got dinner and a show.” Ridian tossed back a second vial.

Lune did not. “You’re not supposed to date outside of the Ecliptic’s matches.”

“Date?” Ridian snorted. “It damn sure wasn’t a date.”

Lune fiddled with her vial.

“It’s not illegal to date or have sex outside the Ecliptic, Lune. I could spend all my credits in the Genie’s Bottle and no one would care.”

Lune threw back her second shot. The Genie’s Bottle belonged to the Pleasure Division, a group which owned several bars, clubs, and brothels spread throughout the central hub.

They also owned two stores that she and Ridian could not enter.

At least not until today.

Lune had always wondered what sort of things they sold. She’d probably find out soon enough, for Ridian would likely drag her inside one by the end of the night.

Not that Lune would complain.

“People would care,” Lune said, smacking her lips. “They just wouldn’t say anything. Not to your face, anyway. They’d say it to mine.”

Ridian shrugged.

“It might not be illegal, but it could spoil your data.”

“You think farting in an occupied elevator will spoil your data,” Ridian said, rolling her eyes. “I don’t give a drone’s ass about my data, and you shouldn’t either. The day a computer program knows more about our lives than we do, I’ll eat my damn terminal.”

“You’ll be eating it today.”

“You forget, Lune. I’m a programmer. I know exactly how fallible a program like the Ecliptic is.”

“Fallible or not, I’d rather live a life ruled by data and science than guesswork and whimsy, thank you very much.”

“You would, and that’s a shame.” Ridian frowned. “I’ll introduce you to Nove’s friend after the ceremony. He’s hot and up for anything. And you, my dear, desperately need that sort of fun in your life.”

“Meridian—”

“Don’t Meridian me. You’re officially an adult today, and it’s high time you took your data by the hand and—”

“I often take my data by the hand. It’s one of my favorite pastimes.”

“Exactly! You can’t wait around to be matched forever, Lune. You’ve become a horny little brat lately, one who desperately needs a good lay.”

“Shhh!” Lune eyed the students nearby. “I’ll get laid just fine when the Ecliptic—”

“Plans your entire life for you,” Ridian said, jutting her chin at Lune’s empty vial. “This stuff is a lot stronger than it tastes, by the way. I hope you programmed a big breakfast.”

Lune winced.

“Oatmeal again? Damn it, Lune. If the computer thinks you can’t even handle breakfast, you’ll never get your precious match. We’re having burgers for lunch with some outrageously large monster fries. I’ll hack a Foodie myself if I have to.”

“Fine.”

Ridian smiled and nodded curtly, lunch plans decided. “You know, Nove’s friend is pretty hot. I’m going to introduce you, whether you want—”

A whistle pierced the air. Both Lune and Ridian turned toward the source, as did every student who milled throughout the room. Mr. Barlow, their head deck educator, stood at the front of the room. His salt-and-pepper hair had absorbed more salt in the last year, as had his waistline. The Ecliptic would start rationing his meals soon, if it hadn’t already.

Lune checked her watch.

Eight fifty.

“Governor Cassini has nearly finished his speech,” Mr. Barlow called out, his hands cupped around his mouth. “We’re taking the stage in five minutes. Line up in alphabetical order and sit in the first chair you come to, just as we practiced yesterday.”

Ridian grabbed Lune’s empty vials, thrust them into her pocket, and scampered to the back of the room, glass tinkling with every step. Other students scattered as well, and the crowd shuffled itself into alphabetical order. Mr. Barlow ran down the list, ensuring they’d done the task properly, shouting out a random student’s name in irritation when he found him missing.

The student’s boots thundered across the tile as he dashed into place.

Lune’s oatmeal flopped as Mr. Barlow double checked their order then rushed to the front of the group. It flopped harder as he opened the door to the stage.

The line tipped forward, ushering her toward the Ecliptic’s decision.

Its final decision.

The graduates drifted onstage, their boots clomping across the metal floor, each bulb in the ceiling blinding them to their parents and siblings in the audience. Everyone in Residence Deck Theta had become a part of their extended family over the last twenty years, but by the end of the day, the Ecliptic would reserve a new suite in a new residence deck for each of them. When they felt ready, each graduate would move away from home and live with members of their new department.

Lune would only stay in Residence Deck Theta if the Ecliptic assigned her to the Engineering Division.

She thrust her hands in her pockets as someone coughed in the darkness.

A baby gurgled and squealed in the front row.

“Let’s give a round of applause to our first crop of graduates,” said the station governor, standing before a podium in his formal silver jumpsuit. Each button gleamed with polish. He might have been their father for how he nodded approvingly at them, though they’d only met the man a handful of times.

The crowd clapped obediently as the students stopped before their chairs and sat down in front of the monitor, the large screen serving as the backdrop and focal point for the ceremony. Several flying cameras panned across the faces of the graduates, settling in for reaction shots or taking aerial views of the stage. Others flew above the crowd, all guided by the Ecliptic.

A little robot on tank tracks zoomed to the front of the stage, stopping beside Mr. Barlow. It beeped at the turn of the hour, nudging him and Governor Cassini to press on with the schedule.

“At this time, I’d like to introduce the head educator of Residential Deck Theta, Mr. Edwin Barlow,” the governor said to the crowd.

The audience clapped as Mr. Barlow stepped forward. “In past years, the first speaker has usually been far more loquacious than I am,” he began, to a great many knowing chuckles. “It is a pity that Ms. Hubble retired. I apologize in advance for not living up to her unparalleled spirit and exuberance.”

He waved his hand toward an elderly woman in the front row, the former head educator of Residential Deck Theta. She’d just turned one hundred and sixty the month before, retiring to enjoy her last few decades of good health. “Stand up, madam, for you have been sorely missed this year.”

The woman stood up in her elder’s robes, blushing as she gave the crowd a wave.

The cameras caught a lone tear as it trickled down her cheek.

Mr. Barlow gripped the podium. “Like you, Ms. Hubble, I have watched these students grow from toddlers into capable young people, ready to take their places as adults on Magnolia Station. For years, I have looked forward to seeing which path the Ecliptic has chosen for them. So if you’ll pardon me, I’d really like to get right to it.”

The crowd chuckled as Mr. Barlow craned his neck toward the monitor.

Everyone else in the auditorium did the same.

“Elara Alvén,” Mr. Barlow called out as Elara joined him beside the podium. Everyone watched the screen as her name appeared, as the letters danced and shook, exploding in a rush of blue and purple pixels.

No one watched as nervously as Elara as the pixels reformed.

“Maintenance Division,” Barlow called out, reading the monitor.

Outside the auditorium, a large group of people cheered, their cries muffled by the closed auditorium doors.

The shy and stocky Elara grinned at the monitor and the shouts of her new family. She might have been a new bride, glowing happily on her wedding day.

Lune understood her friend’s relief. They’d often partnered over the years, Lune building something, Elara making a few adjustments so that it would not break so easily. Elara had not wanted to become a member of the engineering division. She’d wanted to fix the engineers’ mistakes.

While Lune spent many mornings tending to her family’s Foodcraft, Elara would have only needed one.

The robot beside the station governor beeped and opened at the top. Governor Cassini rummaged inside and handed Elara a gray jumpsuit, freshly crafted and patched to the Maintenance Division.

Elara hugged the warm fabric to her chest and sat back down.

“Altair Araki,” Mr. Barlow announced. The thin, boisterous young man had already hopped out of his chair and joined their head educator at the podium. He bounced in place while his name exploded and resolved in brilliant pixels.

“Hospitality.”

Altair pumped his fist ever so slightly as a cheer sounded through the auditorium’s doors. The Ecliptic had set him on a path to become a chef.

The entire class had often indulged in Altair’s culinary experiments. His enthusiasm, if not his instinct, knew no bounds. His ambition had forced him to improve with each meal, until every student begged him to whip up another of his famous desserts.

The robot beeped.

Governor Cassini withdrew a teal jumpsuit, patched to Hospitality.

Altair ran his fingers over the patch and sat back down, barely able to remain still.

And so it went for forty more graduates, Lune’s stomach feasting upon itself while she rocked back and forth in her seat.

Lune leapt out of her chair as her neighbor received his match, then trudged to the podium. Blood drained from her cheeks, as did any hint of a smile. Only fear remained, plastered across her face.

“Lune Lagrange,” Mr. Barlow called out.

Lune faced the monitor, watching as her name exploded into blue light. The pixels churned onscreen, each one shifting and twisting worse than her stomach.

Then shifting and twisting some more.

When a camera circled around her face for the third time, she dropped her gaze to her fellow graduates. Every student eyed one another. Several bowed their heads and whispered.

The Ecliptic had not taken so long to crunch anyone else’s data.

The governor tapped his wrist unit. “Cassini to Maintenance, I believe the Ecliptic is—”

Before he could say another word, the pixels reformed.

“Pleasure Division?” Mr. Barlow read out, his head swiveling to Lune.

Her mouth gaped worse than his as she read off her assignment.

Pleasure Division?

A muffled cheer went up outside, though Lune could barely hear it. The Pleasure Division remained the smallest department on the station, and their little group had likely gathered far from the doors.

Lune shook her head. “There must be some mistake. I’ve never even been matched for a date! How can I become a courtesan if I haven’t even kissed anyone yet?”

Scattered chuckles sounded in the darkness.

“I’m supposed to be an engineer. The Ecliptic—”

“Has made its decision, and the Ecliptic is never wrong,” Governor Cassini cast a wary eye toward the monitor as the robot beeped beside him. The top flipped open with a pop.

Governor Cassini did not hand her a jumpsuit. Courtesans and courtiers did not wear them. They had altogether different outfits. Outfits she’d not wear in a hundred million years.

He withdrew a few scraps of red silk.

“No. This isn’t right!”

Cassini pressed the warm silk into her hands. “It is decided,” he whispered, squeezing her shoulder before he turned back to the monitor.

Lune bunched up the silk and stuffed it into her pocket. She searched each row of graduates for Ridian as she returned to her seat.

Lune caught her friend’s eye, a friend who could only shrug helplessly.

After she sat down, she began mentally composing her protest to the Appeals Committee—not that complaints ever worked.

Not often, anyway.

Lune crossed her arms over her chest, her lip jutting out as the crowd stared at the monitor. The station governor stared too, along with the cameras.

Her parents probably stared as well, wondering where they’d gone wrong.

Lune barely heard the crowd gasp.

And whisper.

Lune realized she hadn’t heard Mr. Barlow call the next student’s name. He stood beside the head educator, awkwardly gazing at her.

Lune frowned and twisted in her chair, glancing at the monitor.

Then instantly wished she hadn’t. Little red hearts had formed every letter on the screen, spelling out a name.

Her name.

And someone else’s.

“I suppose tonight we’ll celebrate more than the Becoming,” Mr. Barlow said, clearing this throat. “We’ll celebrate an engagement. Congratulations to Lune Lagrange and Vega Van Allen, Magnolia Station’s newest couple.”

Lune slid down in her chair, her bottom lip jutting out even farther. What kind of screwed-up world had she woken up to? She’d already confessed—to the entire station—that she hadn’t even had a date yet.

How could the Ecliptic mate her with no data?

She ignored the second muffled cheer outside the auditorium—her new mate’s division, no doubt.

Their enthusiasm drew the audience in, if not reluctantly. Though they clapped pleasantly enough, the cameras captured their bewildered expressions. The Ecliptic hadn’t announced a mating during the Becoming ceremony in at least two decades, and that couple had at least gone on a few dates first.

Lune dropped lower in her seat.

Why her?

Why now?

Why in front of the entire station?

She didn’t even know anyone named Vega Van Allen. What kind of person went by such a stupid name, anyway?

She frowned, pondering her new life. Shuttled to the Pleasure Division. Mated before she’d even gone out on a date.

How had her life turned out so wrong?

The pixels on the monitor churned again. Whispers began anew when they did not reform into the next graduate’s name.

“Watch it screw your life up next,” Lune murmured.

Governor Cassini brought his wrist unit up to his lips. “Cassini to Maintenance, I—”

The next student’s name finally flashed upon the screen.

Mr. Barlow eyed it suspiciously, but he read off the name anyway and continued the ceremony.

Everyone leaned forward, holding their breath.

Lune ignored the hubbub as the Ecliptic revealed another perfect match like Elara’s.

Then another.

And another.

As Mr. Barlow read off each division, the students would laugh or grin.

The crowd would clap, and a division outside would roar their acceptance—even the Engineering Division on more than one occasion.

Every cheer and nervous chuckle tore at Lune, shaking her, rattling her, nearly breaking down a wall of snot and tears that barely held. She’d gone from single to mated in less than two minutes, not to mention her occupational change from engineer to courtesan.

Becoming a janitor had never sounded so appealing.

What the hell did she even know about sex?

She’d never even kissed a man.

“Meredian Scotti.”

Lune twisted in her chair, eyes fastening on the monitor.

The text shuffled, exploding far more quickly than it had for anyone else.

“Pleasure Division,” Mr. Barlow read out, the questioning tone stripped from his voice this time.

Unlike Lune, Ridian did not seem annoyed by the selection.

Indeed, her face broke out in a knowing smile.

A little too knowing.

Why had it taken the Ecliptic so long to match her? Why had it taken so long for the next graduate’s name to appear?

Lune turned back around in her seat and faced the audience. She did not move again until the Ecliptic had sorted every Twenty into their division.

Governor Cassini strolled to the front of the stage and reclaimed the podium. “We’ll adjourn now for tea, giving each department time to meet their newest members, should they have lucked into a Twenty. And for one special couple—”

Lune had never wanted to punch anyone so much before.

She tuned out the governor as he recounted the day he got matched with his wife—a woman he’d already dated for an entire month.

When the governor finished with his speech, the crowd gave a round of applause and stood, their auditorium seats retracting into the floor with a hum of gears and motors. The families milled about the empty room, some already crossing back into the central hub, others striding toward the stage to hug their child.

Her parents fidgeted uncertainly in the middle of the auditorium.

Lune couldn’t blame them.

Ridian darted to her side and punched her arm. “Did you see that? The Ecliptic placed us together. We’ll end up in the same residence deck. And you’re to be mated soon! I guess I won’t have to introduce you to Nove’s friend after all.”

“No, I guess you won’t.”

Ridian’s face fell. “You’re not excited about this at all, are you? The Pleasure Division might not be your first choice, but the Ecliptic obviously thinks you belong there. You’ll have fun, Lune, I promise.”

“Did the Ecliptic do this, or did you?”

Ridian raised a brow. “What?”

“You did this to me, didn’t you? You and that thick brain of yours decided to hack the—”

“You can’t hack the Ecliptic,” Ridian interrupted, her good spirits faltering. “No one is that good.”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not!”

“Stop—”

Ridian pursed her lips. “No, you stop. Stop and think. This move will be good for you, Lune. You’ll finally have an outlet for all that pent-up—”

“I don’t need an outlet.”

“You do. And you need to go somewhere besides Engineering. I don’t care if you like machines or not. You would have gone mad inside of a year. You’d—”

“You don’t know that,” Lune snapped. “I belong there. I would have had fun! I would have been happy!”

“The Ecliptic didn’t think so.”

“When have you ever cared what the Ecliptic thinks?”

“Since it didn’t put me in programming,” Ridian shot back. “It doesn’t matter what I think, Lune. It matters what you think. You’ve only ever cared about that damn computer and your data. Well, here it is. Now. In front of you. Be careful what you wish for.”

“This isn’t my data. This is a friend gone mad. You tampered with the program!”

“I’m good, Lune, but I’m not that good,” Ridian said. “The Pleasure Division is probably watching the ceremony from the Genie’s Bottle. When you pull your head out of your ass, come join me there.”

Ridian turned on her heel and crossed the stage.

Lune’s mother and father passed Ridian on the steps.

“You should go with her,” her mother said when they joined Lune, disappointment leaking into her voice. “Your new division will want to meet you. So will your mate.”

“I’m not getting mated, and my new division will not want to meet me. Not after what I said. I made my feelings very clear.”

“Ah, Lune, not everyone is happy with their selection,” her father assured her. “I wasn’t. I never wanted to teach. I wanted to build things, but the Ecliptic knew better than I did what would make me happy.”

“Sex isn’t going to make me happy.”

“Sex generally makes everyone happy, so long as they’re doing it right.” Her father stifled a grin and thumbed away a tear that drifted down Lune’s cheek. “Not everyone in the Pleasure Division becomes a courtesan, Lune. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“Yes, I do. I have to give up tinkering. I have to work there. And I have to marry some asshole named Vega.”

“You don’t have to give up tinkering. Everyone has hobbies. People volunteer for different departments all the time on their off hours. Not everyone accepts the Ecliptic’s decision when it comes to their mate, either.”

“They never end up happy, though,” her mother warned.

“I don’t even like people all that much,” Lune said. “I like machines.”

“And you can still like them,” her father assured her. “People are just overly fleshy machines at heart, kiddo. You’re good at figuring out how they work. Just go meet your division. You’ll feel better afterward.”

“Your father is right.” Her mother nodded. “I’m sorry, Lune. I don’t understand it either, but the Ecliptic knows best.”

“No, it doesn’t. This is all Ridian’s doing. She fiddled with the program somehow.”

“Lune Lagrange, you know damn well that a Twenty can’t hack the Ecliptic’s programming.”

“She did. Why else would she end up there too?”

“Because Ridian enjoys people far more than you do. I’m not surprised you ended up together.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve seen the algorithm. It takes a close look at everything you do, including who you choose as friends and the things you do together. It takes it all into account when it crunches the data. You’ve always stuck by Ridian. You’ve always participated in her silly little schemes and mischief. Apparently, it makes you far happier than you let on.”

“I don’t participate,” Lune grumbled, thrusting her hands into her pockets. “Is she really the reason why I ended up in the Pleasure Division?”

“Maybe. Then again, maybe you’re the reason why Ridian ended up there,” her mother replied. “Go with her. Go see your division. If you don’t want to stay, you don’t have to. Your father and I had planned to watch the rest of the ceremony from the Circuit Board, but we can leave early and join you at home. We can do something else instead, just send us a message. You can even bring along your future mate if you want. We’d love to meet him.”

“Get in line,” Lune muttered, shuffling away from her parents. She jogged down the stage’s steps and crossed the auditorium, then slipped into the central hub.

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