It was a good first date. The kind of date that could change your life. Pre certainly needed it to.
Across the table, her date Angeli Obaya gave her another encouraging smile. After thirty-ish failed first dates, Pre knew the difference between a fake date smile and a real one. This one was real. And gorgeous.
Angeli was the poster girl of a perfect Connext match. Intelligent, funny, caring, and beautiful to boot. The exact kind of person you would want to meet on a dating app. Especially given the gold band on her wrist.
It was hard to keep her cool, like it didn't matter, like the woman across her wasn't completely out of her reach. But if Pre managed to pull this off… all the other failed dates would be irrelevant. She'd be ranked. And Pre might get to be a Gold.
"So tell me what it's like being a caretaker in the Collective," Pre said, leaning forward to convey interest.
It was actually a topic she'd normally enjoy discussing. But right now, she was more interested in making Angeli think she was interested so that Angeli would be interested in her.
"Do you want the honest answer or the press release answer?" Angeli asked.
"Honest… unless the press release answer is really good."
That earned Pre another smile. Each one seemed to hold more invitation than the last.
Angeli gave her an honest, but clearly well-rehearsed, answer. Rewarding, but challenging. Ups and downs, mostly ups. The conversation turned back around. What did Pre do? Oh, nothing. A food quality assurance supervisor.
"It sounds fancier than it is," Pre said, blushing as Angeli raised a respectful eyebrow. "I watch a conveyor belt of food to make sure that a factory bot part didn't fall into a chicken nugget or something."
"Wow that is literally the most boring job ever," Angeli laughed. "I guess they didn't know what job grade to give you since you're-" She cut herself off with a guilty look at Pre.
It stung but Pre was used to it by now. "It's ok," she said, a little stiffly. "I know. I'm over 21 and still unranked. It's super weird." The resentment slipped out before she could stop it. To cover it up, she added, "and so I don't fall into the usual career assignments."
"Yeah," Angeli said. "That's right."
Awkwardness settled over them. They both took a sip of coffee, eyes averted. It was the first uncomfortable silence they'd had all afternoon. Pre was kicking herself. Remember playing it cool? Why didn't I laugh it off? I completely facked this up!!!
A moment later, Angeli broke the tension with a forced groan. "I'm such a tick. I shouldn't have brought it up. Can you forgive me?"
Pre blew all her anxiety out in a deep exhale. It wasn't over yet. She still had a chance. She put her smile back on and tried to mentally rewind. "Yeah," she said. "Like I said, it's fine. I know I'm kinda old to be unranked. I think Connext has just been waiting to find someone really special for me." Trying to summon that confidence again, she raised her eyes meaningfully to Angeli's.
It was difficult to read her expression. Curious, definitely. Intrigued, beyond doubt. But interested in taking it further? Pre wasn't sure until Angeli raised a hand to summon their waiter. When she turned back to face Pre, all the uncertainty was gone.
"There’s a first time for everything, right?”
And that was that.
They left the café. Angeli held Pre's hand tightly, pulling her along the walkway toward her condo. The core loomed around them, magnificent and dizzying. This wasn't Pre's first time in the core but seeing it now, being led to a Gold's condo for testing, felt like a completely different experience. Before, she saw the core as an impossible goal, a status so far beyond her reach. Now, she could look down and see the gold-banded wrist leading her towards her destiny. Hope burned in her chest. Every thought was replaced with: This is it. This is it. This is IT.
Angeli's place was comfortable and elevated in both style and quality. Pre barely even noticed it. She stepped through the doorway, then Angeli's lips were on hers.
Things escalated from there. Their bodies dissolved into a perfect rhythm of passion, desire, and pleasure. Although she knew that her carnal skill wasn't necessarily a guarantee of connection, Pre took her time. Each kiss laced with a lingering tongue; each touch made with full attention. The next hour slid by in a candlelit haze of skin against skin.
Eventually, they surfaced, exhausted and languorous. Pre hung off the side of the bed, barely even noticing as Angeli rolled over, stood, and left the room.
A moment later she returned, dressed in a dark rose robe and holding her com in her hand. The harsh light from the holo-screen cut sharply through the dim room. Pre couldn't actually see what Angeli was looking at but she knew what it was. The moment dragged on and on and on as she reviewed the results of their testing.
“Ah," Angeli said in a tone starkly different from the breathless moans of ten minutes ago, "that's a shame."
It was a tone that Pre was familiar with. “Oh,” she said, struggling to keep her voice casual. “Not good?”
To her credit, Angeli did manage to maintain her upbeat attitude. She flopped down on the bed next to Pre and snuggled her from behind. “It was very good,” she breathed into Pre’s neck. “But the connection is only rated 32%. I'm sorry.” She let go, reaching over Pre to grab a pack of cigarettes from her nightstand.
32%. Her lowest rating yet. Pre forced herself to smile, hoping it would mask the despair in her voice. “It's not your fault,” she said. After all, it wasn't.
Angeli smiled back at her as if to say, I know. “Like I said,” Angeli said, lighting the cigarette between her swollen lips. “It can take a while before your first connection. But I'm sure you'll get it soon!”
“Yeah, totally,” Pre responded. She kept her bland, smiling, well-practiced mask on as she got up and started picking her clothes up from around the room.
Angeli didn't move from the bed, didn't say anything else. She smoked her cigarette and scrolled through her com, possibly even lining up her next date. Pre tried not to look at her. Just hours ago they were at the coffee shop, laughing over childhood pictures and outrageous stories. Now they were back to being strangers.
She got dressed. When she was ready, Angeli walked her out. They came to a standstill, two opposing forces on either side of the doorway. Angeli, trying to end the night and this ordeal; Pre, searching for a way to salvage the situation. She knew she would never get an opportunity like this again.
"Take care," Angeli finally said, pushing the door closed, the gold band on her wrist glittering like an empty promise.
The moment was slipping away. A million words, thoughts, and pleas flooded Pre's brain. Maybe we can meet up again sometime. Maybe we can give it another try. Maybe we should just go back inside. Maybe…
"You too," was all she said.
The moment passed. The door shut. Pre stood there, staring, still turning over the myriad of things she could have, should have, said.
But a rating is a rating. Nothing Pre said could change that. So she left, trudging back into the glittering, mocking lights of the core, where she would never get to live.