It wasn't against the rules. And, well, Nova wouldn't have let the rules stop her if it was, but it was good to know she wasn't putting Ruby into legal danger. It was good to know she wasn't putting herself into legal danger. One brush with the serious prospect of criminal penalty had been one too many, and that had come without even actually breaking any rules, and—no, no, no. No thinking about that right now. No thinking about the problems Ruby might face for this, despite that it was allowed. It wasn't time to think about any of that. It was time to think about love.
Nova Fontana did not really understand love. Well, not love love, not romantic love. She loved her family, after all, but that meant something different. That kind of love made sense. It was caring about them, it was liking them even when they frustrated her, it was worrying about their wellbeing, wanting to share her joy and excitement with them. It was feeling responsible to her parents, even after their proper authority had run out. It was, she had to imagine, them being proud they had raised a good plumber, whatever else had obviously gone wrong with her. And she knew she felt that kind of love towards Ruby. But that wasn't the kind of love she was thinking about, she was pretty sure. People didn't talk like it was, anyways.
But people didn't really talk about it in a way that made any sense at all. Her first recourse had been some of the Old World writing still available on the topic. Nova liked to peruse those records, and thought it might be more helpful to see thoughts on the subject from a time before government regulation of reproduction. But they described romantic love as though it was an adverse health condition. Heart palpitation, skin heating up, and most bizarrely some kind of digestive parasites? Clearly, something was lost in translation. It was far from useless, as it supported that women could love each other that way, that romance could happen without children. It was evidence the feelings were possible, but it didn't tell her if she felt them. And the modern writings tended to be hopelessly impressionisticm when they weren't clear propaganda extolling the virtue of pairs of citizens creating and raising members of the next generation. And, of course, that was aimed at the elect. Love was for those approved to have children, not for her. It wasn't something the sterilized could feel.
Except that definitely wasn't true. Her parents still loved each other, even after the government decided she was unsatisfactory. They had all been sterilized together, not that she understood what it was, at the time. Was it only those sterilized before puberty who couldn't ever develop those kinds of feelings? Or was that entire idea just a lie to suit the government's priorities? It made Nova want to feel romantic love out of spite, but still didn't give her insight into whether she actually did or not. She had asked her parents about it, but they had been embarrassed and awkward. And, though she pretended not to notice, a little sad. It was clear they thought she wouldn't ever be able to feel it for herself. But they were only repeating what they had been told, they didn't actually know. After all, how could they?
Nova sighed. Probably the whole thing was stupid. She wasn't capable of feeling it, so couldn't quite imagine it. But nothing was going to give her an unambiguous realization of that, because she couldn't hold the feeling in her mind to confirm she couldn't feel it. And because she didn't want that to be true, she wanted to be able to return Ruby's feelings. If Ruby loved her but she couldn't love her back... Should she say as much, and let Ruby down early? Should she try to return it, and risk hurting her friend worse when it eventually fell apart? Was she just being an idiot, and there wasn't anything special to romantic love beyond what she felt? She enjoyed Ruby's company, she wanted Ruby to be happy, she wanted to be with Ruby all her life... Maybe that was all it was, or at least the important core of it. Or, what really mattered, maybe that would be enough. Well... Uncertain as she was, she was going to bet on it.
Since she had already committed to a course of action, someone might argue all the agonizing about it was rather pointless. Probably correctly, too. But she couldn't help herself. What else was she supposed to do as the time on the clock counted down to what she and Ruby had agreed would be a date? As the time drew closer still, Nova managed to distract herself with something else. Though, critically staring at herself in a mirror was perhaps worse. She was wearing a simple shirt with pockets and shorts, baggy like almost all of the recreational clothing was. Her work uniforms fit better, those were made in more sizes, but they were also work uniforms. Her black hair was cut short and plain, and she felt that on the whole she looked dull and practical. Nova didn't usually care about looking pretty, but this felt like an occasion where she should. Not that staring at her own reflection was going to make that happen.
Finally, enough time had slipped past her that Ruby arrived, announced with a tone from her door. That of course made her more anxious, but it was an anxiety she could actually do something about. She opened the door, and grinned, she was sure too widely. "Hello, Ruby! Thank you for coming, please come in. I..." The stream of basically automatic pleasantries ran out, and Nova suddenly wasn't sure what to say.
Ruby was smiling at her, and looked embarrassed. She was wearing a dress. It was very pretty, dyed a deep blue, and it fit Ruby well. It was also, clearly, special event clothing. It wasn't for casual use, normal people only ever got the one set, and Ruby had bothered to walk hers over when Nova hadn't even bothered while staying inside her own home. She was the one who should be embarrassed, she felt like an ass. She hadn't taken this seriously enough, she was being disrespectful. Ruby almost certainly wouldn't blame her for not knowing better, but Nova would. She wanted to blurt out an apology, but Ruby spoke up before she could.
"Ah, um, ahem. Hello Nova. It's quite nice to see you, too. Sorry, I felt tongue-tied there for a second. You look very pretty."
"Oh, thank you." Nova felt her cheeks heating up at the obvious lie. Ruby was so considerate, it was almost inhuman. "You look absolutely gorgeous. You made a very good choice when you picked out that dress." With all the grace of a half-clogged drain, Nova stepped out of her doorway to actually let Ruby into the room. She ambled over towards the couch, more from habit than conscious decision. She was already ruining everything, she had to get a handle over herself, there was still time to make it a mitigated disaster—
Ruby clapped a hand on her shoulder, and Nova nearly jumped. That made Ruby recoil, and they both looked at each other guiltily for a second. Ruby got her composure back first. "Hahah, sorry. Um, Nova..." Ruby broke eye contact then. Nova didn't know what to say, and so just let a couple seconds pass by in silence. Ruby sighed, then continued. "You seem stressed. Are you uncomfortable? Please, tell me if so. If you're only doing this for my sake..."
"No!" Nova cleared her throat after her voice came out an octave too high. "No. I'm not uncomfortable. Okay, I am, but not with you. Not with this, exactly. I just don't know what I'm doing. And..." She heaved her shoulders in resignation. "Not only do I not know what I'm doing, I don't know if I can do this. Romance, I mean. I don't want to hurt you. But I already didn't dress up, or look pretty, you're sparing my feelings, and it's mostly my fault this whole thing is so awkward."
Ruby laughed. It caught Nova off-guard, and she looked up in confusion. "I wasn't just saying you were pretty to be nice, Nova. I did mean it. It isn't what you're wearing. I think you're pretty. You have a beautiful face, if that isn't impolite to say. In fact, it was most likely stupid of me to dress up like this, I just thought... Oh my god I just laughed at you for no reason I am so sorry."
Watching that shame wash over her friend's face made Nova snicker, as inappropriate as that was. "It's fine. I think this whole exchange has been near-exclusively false starts, faux pas, and apology. I suppose, in that regard, we must be a match." She smiled, and moved to sit down in the couch. It felt like it helped. "I don't know if you had plans, but I don't think we're ready for them. I still want to try this. But I think we really need to start with calming down and relaxing. I do, anyways. I blew things out of proportion, as ever. I can't help it."
"Yeah." Ruby sat down on the couch, leaving a little space between them. "But I can't blame you. I mean, I'm not innocent of it. As I'm sure you haven't forgotten, I'm not entirely confident in my own feelings, and haven't delivered them with the most tact. And... This is a little worrying. You know. If they'll find out about us, try to punish us for it, or something like that. I can't pretend like I'm not scared of that."
"Oh. ...Yeah. But, well. You blurted it out ahead of my trial, and they didn't do anything. I'd say that maybe we're on a watchlist, but... Well, we both know I am. Hopefully this is too small to care about. I'm alright taking the risk, though. Because... Well, you're my favorite person on this entire ship, Ruby. And I want to be with you. And the threat of punishment hasn't stopped me from doing what I want yet, has it?" Nova looked Ruby in the eyes and grinned. That, at least, was something she could say with confidence.
Ruby looked struck, but then smiled. "Thank you, Nova. I feel the same way. I want to be with you, and if that's against the rules... Then forget the rules." She shook her head and laughed. "My parents always said you were a bad influence. I'm sure they would be recoiling right now."
Despite herself, that made Nova grin wider. "Mmhm. But don't worry, I'm sure my parents would be aghast to hear I've corrupted such an upstanding citizen as yourself. Well, more seriously, I think they would be happy for me. And I'm sure they would appreciate you for keeping me in line, at least a little."
"And you're very welcome for that." Ruby snickered, then put a hand on Nova's.
It was a nice moment. Nova still wasn't sure about her own feelings, or her capacity for them, but she knew she enjoyed Ruby's company. They would figure it out eventually, she was sure. But for the moment, there was nothing to do but enjoy it. Until the announcement started playing.
"Greetings, citizens." Voice announcements weren't common, reserved for very serious or urgent notifications, so Ruby and Nova exchanged a wary glance. "It has just now come to my attention that recently some of you attempted to sabotage the engines." Nova had no idea who was talking. Someone important, surely, talking personally like that, but she couldn't place the voice. It was very distinctive, too, she would definitely recognize it if she had heard it before. "That simply will not do. As I'm sure you are all aware, that kind of action could endanger our mission. And that certainly won't do. This is simply too dangerous a threat to ignore, even after the apprehension of what seems to be all the conspirators. So, protocol demands I take an active role in things from this point onwards. It felt only considerate to announce this. I'll do my best to keep my intrusions minimal, and I want to assure you all that there will only be negligible impacts on you. Oh, excuse me. It's been long enough that I really ought to clarify. My name is Ark. You might know me as the ship. More properly, I am the artificial intelligence system overseeing and operating the automatic systems. And, now that protocol requires it, the surveillance. But please, do not worry. It is my sincerest wish to see all of you happy, healthy, and making it safely to our destination. That's the mission I was built for, after all. I hope you can forgive the unfamiliar nature of this announcement, but it seemed prudent. If you have questions, please send them to the automated messages over the communications systems, I'll see them. That will be all."
Nova glanced over at Ruby. She looked frightened, and Nova wasn't sure that she didn't, too. That had to be a tasteless joke, right? A prank? Or a deliberate government lie to frighten people into compliance for fear of the, what was it, artificial intelligence? Some kind of computer system watching over all of them? It was a terrible thought, but at least it couldn't be true. Ruby... didn't look so sure. She glanced around Nova's room, and then hesitantly laughed. "That is, ah... Not a very amusing joke."
Then the same voice played over the speakers again, though in a hush. "To be clear, I'm not a joke."
Nova and Ruby both gulped at once. But they couldn't just believe it. Simply a little last touch, played out to everyone, with especially eerie timing for them through pure chance.
But apparently not a last touch, as the voice spoke up again. "Please, don't look so frightened. I meant what I said before. I am entirely benevolent, with your best interests in mind. I love humanity. Oh, actually. Could I ask, which one of you two is Nova Fontana? I wanted to issue an apology. People got very overzealous about the incident before I stepped in. Metaphorically stepped, you understand."
Nova opened her mouth to speak, but basically croaked. Ruby was wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
"Oh, I'm very sorry. You clearly need some more time to process this. Please, try not to worry about it. Enjoy your intimacy, ladies."
It didn't feel real. Nova felt distinctly surreal, like she had only just realized she was in a dream. She moved her hand a bit and squeezed Ruby's, partly as a reminder that this was real, but mostly for the comfort. She was absolutely terrified.