L.N. Hunter shares an untidy home with two cats and a soulmate, and has been published in the Flame Tree Fiction newsletter, Obscura and Trickster's Treats 3, amongst others. "First Date" is in Short Circuit #07, Short Édition's quarterly review.

Image of Short Circuit - Short Circuit #07
I watched one of those old movies the other day—you know, from when nobody wore masks. It was a little disturbing to see all those naked mouths, and sometimes it was tricky to tell what was going on, since a lot of old-timey actors weren't very good at showing their emotions in their eyes. Afterwards, I spent ages trying out different facial expressions in the bathroom mirror, trying to get my mouth to match what my eyes and eyebrows do naturally—it's hard!
I got a DM from Remy as I was doing it—my SomaNet had tripped an alarm because of my elevated heartrate and breathing. It signalled everyone I'd registered as my health watchers. That's Mum, my sister, best friend Joss, and Remy, of course. The others probably didn't even notice, but Remy overreacted, as usual—I guess it's kinda sweet that she worries so much.
I gave her a vidcall back, and she couldn't help but laugh when I explained what I'd been doing. It was weird how the laughter in the movie differed from hers, as if the bottom halves of the actors' faces were somehow loose while their foreheads were unnaturally static.
When she stopped laughing, she asked, "Still coming over tomorrow?"
I felt a sudden chill, and wondered if she noticed that on SomaNet. I swallowed. "Sure, nothing can keep me away."
Her eyes smiled back at me, and I resisted the temptation to check her vitals on SomaNet to see if she was worried about the visit, too.
My eighteenth birthday was a couple of weeks ago. We've talked every day since then about a real-world visit, but the confirmation email allowing me to go outside unaccompanied only turned up yesterday.
Besides being nervous about meeting Remy with no screens between us, I have to admit I'm a bit scared to be outside on my own, not to mention travelling so far. Remy lives more than seventy miles away—that's going to take three hours or so on the train, what with the disinfectant protocols at the stations and county border processing.
Some families have their own private transport, but Dad says that's a waste of money. Like most people, he and Mum work from home, and school's totally remote-based, too. There's no point in paying to maintain a car, and non-business fuel tax is astronomical—specifically to discourage travelling. We never go anywhere farther than walking distance, anyway—even then, we step outside the house at most once a month.
That's always an ordeal: putting on the outerwear takes a good ten minutes, and my helmet always steams up, no matter the weather. Oh, sure, some people just wear mouth coverings, but there are fewer health patrol stop-and-checks if your whole face is enclosed.
I bought a new T-shirt for my visit. It says I wanna touch your skin on the front. I hope Remy doesn't think it's too rude; No way can I let Mum see it!
Fortunately, the oversuit hides it when I get dressed to go out. My palms are sweaty, and the mask steams up even before I leave the house. I hope I'll be able to see where I'm going.
Mum looks worried as I head to the airlock, and Dad presses a spare air filter tablet into my hand, just in case the journey takes longer than expected. I roll my eyes—if the journey takes more than a day, I'm in serious trouble. I know they'll both be able to see exactly where I am all the time via SomaNet tracking, so they really don't need to worry. Today's viral load forecast is low to moderate, too, thanks to the stiff western breeze, so it's a fairly safe day to be out.
At the station, I scan my ID card at the ticket barrier and wait a tense dozen or so seconds while the machine checks my vaccine record and recent SomaNet stats. Finally, its automated voice says, "Proceed to Platform 3, Embarkation Pod 10, Seat A," and the gate opens.
I swallow as I catch my first glimpse of Platform 3. It's crowded! There must be a dozen people there, at least. A couple of the pods have families in them, but most contain a single traveller, or no one at all. I'm relieved to see that Pod 10 is empty. It stays that way, apart from me, until the station entrance closes, which means I'll have a seating compartment inside the carriage all to myself.
Someone in Pod 5 coughs. Everyone stares at them, but the cough isn't repeated. The train doors open and I enter the carriage through a mist of disinfectant spray. Before sitting down, I inspect the seals around the compartment—no obvious signs of wear, though I doubt if I would be able to spot a leak, anyway.
I brought a book to read, but I end up staring out the window the whole time, watching the countryside and villages drift by. I can see some roads, too, occupied by delivery lorry chains and the occasional car. We pass one of those traveller camps—refugees, Mum calls them—where people don't have masks or other protective gear. I don't know if it's because they don't believe in the virus, even now, or if they simply can't afford protection. Maybe they're part of the one percent who are immune. I stare at the people standing around outside and wonder how many will die.
The train stops at the border, and an inspection robot rolls along the aisle, scanning people's ID cards and taking temperatures. There's an argument at the entrance to one of the family compartments farther down the carriage; it seems one of the kids is measuring hot, but it looks like they're getting away with it. I count my blessings that my compartment is far from that one, and has its own ventilation system.
Remy lives with her older sister in a flat not too far from the station. That's good news, because it means I can walk instead of having to take a taxi or other public transport. There's a rack of rental scooters outside the station, but the idea of touching one of those, even through my gloves, makes my skin crawl.
I'm not so keen on the flat arrangement, though—shared stairs and corridor. I have no other option, though it does briefly cross my mind that a ladder to their window would be safer. Remy has to use the stairs every time she goes in or out, and she's still virus-free, so it's probably safe. I hope.
I spray my gloves and use an anti-viral wipe to touch the door handle, then make my way to her front door.
My heart's thudding. I know I'm going to have to take my suit off inside. What's it going to be like breathing the same air as someone who isn't family? A band tightens around my skull. I'll be sitting on someone else's furniture and eating and drinking from things they've touched.
My skin goes clammy, and I shiver, hands tightening into fists. What if Remy wants us to touch each other? I wish I wasn't wearing such a stupid T-shirt.
I feel dizzy as I stand at her door, and force myself to inhale and exhale slowly. Maybe I should give up and go home—that's the safe thing to do.
I feel sick. I try to think of excuses I can give Remy when I get home. I wonder what my SomaNet is showing—it must be telling everyone I'm ill.
Heat rushes to my face as I realize that it's also telling everyone on my network exactly where I am. Remy knows I'm here.
I reach out to the buzzer. No, I can't do it. I should just leave. Who needs a girlfriend, anyway? It's safer to be alone.
I turn around. I start to take a step away from the door.
Then I stop and close my eyes. I imagine Remy's face. My heart rate slows a little. I picture Remy on the other side of the door's airlock. She might be as close as five paces away.
I open my eyes, turn around again, and press the buzzer.

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