"Greetings citizen. This automated notice is being sent by your local community detention center. Your presence has been requested by a peer who is currently: detained, awaiting judgement. The request comes from: NOVA FONTANA. Your attendance is: not mandatory. You: do not need to reply to this message. Attached resources: directions, meeting times, projected schedule for judgement process."
Ruby read the message over again one more time and then swallowed hard. How did this happen? Why did it happen? Her friend went quiet for a few days, and then her account was suspended, and then she was arrested? The suspension she could almost understand, but this had to be wrong. Some accident or misunderstanding or mistake, or some misdemeanor, or something that made sense. She took a deep breath. She would just have to ask Nova herself. Whatever was going on, there was no way she was going to leave her there alone.
Ruby had never visited the local community detention center, but the attached directions were simple enough. It wasn't far. Two blocks north, one block east, and three blocks up. Then the center would be right in front of her, occupying the whole block. How to get to Nova once she was there, well, there would be someone there she could ask. She checked the meeting times, and they were currently going on. They were rather convenient, lasting most of the day, which was nice. And then the schedule was... She was being judged today. In only a couple hours.
Ruby ran out of her home and and made it most of the way to the elevator block before running out of breath. She took several deep breaths to catch her wind and pull herself together. A couple of neighbors asked her what was wrong, but she brushed it off with vague non-answers. Then she walked the rest of the way, quickly, but calmly.
The local community detention center looked much the same as the rest of her local community. She rarely left it, but when she did she had found most of the ship looked similar. It was the same reassuring grey as all the outdoors was, the smooth construction standing without those interior personal effects. But rather than the usual cubes of homes in blocks crisscrossed by streets, the detention center was one single large building dominating what would have been several blocks. She knew it would be, but in-person it almost seemed to loom. Ruby shook that thought out of her head and approached the high-capacity doors.
It didn't take long to get through the reception area and be directed the proper waiting area. The interior of the building seemed more reminiscent of the neighborhoods she had seen, although it was still arranged strangely. Once she was in the meeting room, she was to take a seat. On the other side of the room it didn't take long for Nova to arrive. Ruby was relieved to see she looked okay, even though there was not much reason to fear she wouldn't. Well, she looked mostly okay. Nova was obviously furious, though her face lit up when their eyes met.
"Ruby!" Nova practically ran from the entrance of the room to the divider between them. She didn't sit down. "I'm so glad to see you. This is crazy, I'm sorry to drag you into all this stupid stupid—"
"It's okay, Nova. You don't have to apologize for worrying me. I'm just glad to see you're okay." Ruby smiled, and she hoped it was reassuring. "Could you tell me what's going on? We both know you shouldn't be here. Is this all a big misunderstanding, or...?"
Nova nodded, and was silent for a second. "They think I'm a terrorist."
Ruby's eyes went wide. "What? No. That doesn't make any sense, that's—"
"I know. It's absurd, it's bullshit, I know. But it's not a joke." Nova heaved a sigh, and then looked down to the floor. "Apparently some people tried to sabotage the engines. They think I could be part of some conspiracy behind it."
"Oh. Yeah, that was... all over the news. But you? Why would they ever think you were a part of that? It doesn't make any sense. I mean, we're not even near the engines, you have absolutely no clearance to go there, and you don't have any expertise. I don't mean any offense, but how would a plumber like you possibly sabotage the ship's engines in the first place?"
"I doubt it would help my case to point it out, but you can make a bomb with a pipe, a fluid, and enough pressure. A big part of my job is making sure that doesn't happen, after all. But no, they don't think I physically assisted with their failed sabotage. At least I don't think they're so stupid as to think that. No, I'm almost certain they suspect I'm an ideological element. That I'm some firebrand that motivated the actual saboteurs to try what they tried." Nova sighed and rubbed at her forehead.
Ruby was silent for a few moments. Just hearing this felt awful. How could they have ever got that impression? Why arrest Nova for something that made so little sense, on no evidence? Were they investigating her like this when the actual perpetrators still weren't caught? Eventually she managed to get a handle on herself and ask a question. "Nova, I'm so sorry you have to deal with this. It's ridiculous. But it will be okay. This is clearly a mistake, and that will be made clear in the judgement. There's no evidence or even reason to think—" Ruby fumbled on her words when she saw Nova look up at her. Nova was terrified like she had never seen her before. It was unsettling to see her closest friend so desperate.
"The messages! The messages, Ruby! They must have combed through everyone's messages for something, anything relevant. And I must have been among the most suspicious they found, because the actual conspirators weren't so stupid as to use something so easily spied on to coordinate. I knew I couldn't trust it, I just, I didn't think it would be an issue like this. I was a fucking idiot for thinking that not saying anything criminal would be enough to protect me." She took a deep breath, and then Ruby saw tears in the corners of her eyes. "They're going to convict me, Ruby. Whether or not they believe I'm guilty, they'll sentence me, I just know it. I've said things they don't want to allow, and this is an excuse to crack down. I'm probably not the only one. Fuck, fuck, why am I saying this, I don't want to get you in trouble too. If I haven't already for talking about stuff like that with you. Oh my god, I'm so sorry, I—"
"Nova, no, it's, it will be alright. You have to calm down. They're not going to convict you on no actual evidence, okay? And your messages make it clear you would never even dream of being a part of something terrible like this. I think they're just trying to cast a wide net to make sure they don't miss anyone. And I'm definitely not going to get into any trouble because you talked to me. Even if I did, it wouldn't be your fault. It would be theirs. So don't apologize, okay?" Ruby swallowed.
Nova shook her head. "But Ruby, even if they don't think I actually did it, they'll..."
"If they wanted to silence you, they wouldn't have let anyone come to visit. Your judgement is so soon they might have even excused that as simply a red tape issue, right? I know you don't trust the authorities. After this I'm not sure I do either. But please, believe me, this isn't a conspiracy to silence you, taking advantage of the recent issue. Even if they wanted to do that, there's more important matters to attend to first. So hang in there, okay?"
Nova was quiet for a few moments. She took several deep breaths, and rubbed at the corners of her eyes. "I'll try to. But I don't have the optimism you have. I can't just magically change what I think is likely. I wish I could be convinced by you, but... Fuck. I'm terrified and miserable and I don't know how not to be. If I get out I need to rethink things."
"Yeah, I—I—" Ruby had to gulp to form words again. "I think I do too. When you get out of here, I want us to be closer. I want..." She swallowed again. Why did her chest hurt to look at Nova like this? "I don't know. Fuck."
Despite everything, Nova laughed a little. "Sorry. I'm just not used to hearing you swear. More seriously, I don't know what I really want either. To be out of here, obviously, for a start. But... Let's hope we can figure it out together, right?" Nova smiled, just a little. Ruby returned it.
A voice played over an intercom, somewhere in the room, and Nova nearly jumped. "Attention. The visiting window is nearly over. Please say your goodbyes." Nova started to tear up again, but somehow managed to grin. Ruby felt like something had her heart in a vice.
Nova found words first. "Damnit. I wanted to talk more. But thank you for visiting. And... I'll see you. Hopefully."
Ruby nodded, and stood up. "Yeah. I'll see you. I'm so sorry about all of this. I..." She started to say something, and then shut her mouth. What was going through her mind right now, at a time like this?
Nova seemed to notice, and leaned close to the divider. She set her forehead to the glass, even though she almost certainly wasn't supposed to. She was still managing to hold onto some kind of composure, but it was obviously a front. "Hey, Ruby, I can tell you want to say something. So say it. There... Might not be another chance, after all."
Ruby swallowed and balled up her fists. She was right. It was an awful, terrifying thought, but she was right. She wanted, she needed more time to sort out her feelings, to decide if it was real or just some stupid idea. But she didn't have it. The intercom crackled again with a direction for the visitor to leave the room, and she made herself blurt it out. "Nova, I think I might be in love with you."
A long silence fell. She was almost afraid to look at Nova's face, but she made herself make eye contact again. Nova looked surprised, or confused, or something. Then she opened her mouth and took a second to fumble out "Oh."
Ruby's heart was pounding in her chest. She was stupid, stupid, unbelievably stupid to spring that on her like that, and so much was more important, and she didn't even know if that was what her feelings were, and she was halfway through blurting out "I'm sorry, I shouldn't" when the intercom repeated the request for her to leave. Ruby wanted to stay in there, to keep Nova company until she was actually forced to leave. But she wouldn't. She wouldn't cause more trouble than she already had, for the authorities or for Nova, and so she meekly shuffled out of the room.
She pulled herself back together and apologized to the person who had come to collect her. He brushed it off, so at least there was little reason to worry about that. He told her she would be allowed to remain in a waiting area to hear how the judgement went, after it finished. Nova had already approved of sharing that info with her, apparently. Ruby was prepared to sit there for as long as it took, carrying a knot in her stomach. The time seemed to stretch on and on.
But when she got a new notification on her handheld, the clock showed it had only been twenty-three minutes.
"Greetings citizen. This automated notice is being sent by your local community detention center. Your requested update on the status of: NOVA FONTANA has been approved. The judgement was: not guilty on all charges. Further action to be taken: none. You: do not need to reply to this message. Attached resources: none."
Ruby let out a sigh of relief. Of course. Of course she was found innocent when she was obviously innocent. She shouldn't have gotten so swept up in Nova's worries, more than understandable for her as they were. She didn't know what to do with herself, and just sat there for a bit longer. Before she decided to leave, another message came through on her device.
"Hello Ruby. You should have got the message already, but you were right. They let me off on everything. Basically immediately, too. I'm almost even madder that they detained me for this, knowing it was such a trivial waste of time."
"I did hear. I'm very glad this is over with. And you're right to be outraged about that. This was needlessly distressing in addition to being generally needless. And I'm sorry for what I said earlier."
"You don't need to apologize. I'm not upset. That wasn't the best time, but I asked you to spit it out, so that's on me. Honestly, all of that was my fault, getting you as worked up as I was. Sorry about that."
"It's alright. That was completely understandable that you were so worried. You don't need to apologize at all, either."
"Alright. I guess I just have two questions, then. If you wouldn't mind me asking something?"
"What do you want to ask?"
"First, well... Did you mean it?"
"Yes. I did mean it. Including the 'I think'. It's confusing. I don't know if that's actually what how I feel is. It's not how it's supposed to work, I know that much. I'm probably just being stupid. I hope this doesn't come in between us."
"It won't. I don't know how being in love feels, either. I've never really thought about it. After all, it's not like I'm supposed to feel it. Or supposed to be able to feel it, even. But I do know I like you a lot, and I want to stay your friend forever, at the very least. We can figure this out. That brings me to my second question. Would you like to walk home with me? To either of our homes. I don't want to be alone right now."
"Oh. Then I'm looking forward to figuring this out with you. And of course, I'd be glad to walk home with you, now. And to talk more about things. In person."