"Okay, Barry, Iím calling it. Heads heís dead, tails heís alive."
"Derek," I said, "that wonít work."
Two weeks after we blew the hell out of Fugly, unless we didnít, CONUNDRUM was flying through Weinberg Space on its way to the Pegasus star system, still stuck in radio silence because we just didnít have the computer power to manage Comm systems from within this weird extra-dimensional space. Thatís okay, apparently, because weíve got a coin to toss.
Lieutenant Derek Nietzsche might have been the youngest guy on the ship, but he managed to look even younger than he was. He flipped the coin with his thumb, caught it with the same hand, and slapped it dramatically onto his forearm. He tried to catch my eye, but I wouldnít throw it to him, so he exposed the coin instead.
"Heads," he stated. "Fuglyís dead."
"Youíve got a two-headed coin there."
"Afraid not." He showed me. "Iíll do it again. Heads heís dead, tails heís alive."
It was very difficult to have a serious conversation in a room with road signs on all the walls. Well, the conversation was bullshit anyway, but never mind. Signs, signs, everywhere signs, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind.
Please keep off the grass
No parking on even days
No Passing Zone
Do Not Enter
Slippery When Wet
Double Left Turn
Emergency Parking Only
Do not feed the bears
"What is all this shit?" I asked.
"Just a reminder."
"All we gave up by coming out here. Iím flipping the coin a second time. Heads, Fuglyís dead. Tails, Fuglyís alive. Got it? Here we go."
"This is ridiculous."
Derek flipped the coin, then showed it to me.
"Heads again," he said. "Fuglyís dead."
"Now that is freaky, but it doesnít prove anything. Do you know why?"
"Because youíre a shmendrick?"
"No, because we havenít seen the body. My brotherís funeral was closed casket. Well, it had to be. Bicycle versus truck. For years I kept thinking heíd just pop on my SpaceBook page one day. April Fool or some shit. Same thing with Fugly."
"What, Fugly uses SpaceBook?" Derek asked.
"Donít make me frap you upside the head, boy."
"Barry, thatís redundant. The only place you can frap somebody is upside the head. Itís part of the definition of the word."
"Iíll remember that when I frap you, son."
I guess I hung out with Derek because he was so damn young. Iím 160, but I slept 101 of those years, making me about the same age as most crewmen. I always refer to the under-50 crowd as kids, but Derek is that rare animal known as an under-40 crewman. Back on Earth, Iíd probably card him for beer. He worked back in the Second Wheel, growing muscle tissue on scaffolding. Make friends with the Foodies and youíve got an unlimited source of meat.
I learned the same trick centuries ago, by the way, working in restaurants where employees were allowed to eat the cookís mistakes. Make friends with the cook and you can tell him what mistake youíd like for him to make and when youíd like for him to make it.
"Third timeís the charm," he said, holding up his coin. "Heads means Fugly is dead, and tails means... shit. Iím not doing this anymore. Fugly is dead."
"I donít know. Catch."
I wasnít catching the damn thing. It landed on the floor of his cabin.
We had no sunlight. That made the solariums a great place to get away from people. One of the unfortunate side effects of Weinberg Space was that we had to "close all the windows" or else weíd just be blinded by all the streaming light of a few thousand suns.
On the bright side, no pun intended, weíd travel over 50 light years in roughly 10 months. Plus, well, the solariums were a great place to get away from people.
Colonel Cram, Chief Engineer aboard CONUNDRUM, was apparently feeling as antisocial as I was, because there we were.
"Itís a common misperception," he said, "a misunderstanding of the nature of probability, that any coin toss affects the next one."
"Terrence Lawrence Cram, you are full of shit."
"Barry, my middle name isnít Lawrence."
"Oh. I just had you figured for a TLC kind of guy."
The sigh. I live for it.
"Barry, while quantum physics isnít my specialty, I know enough to accept that weíre getting some weird effects from Fuglyís death."
"Like a coin coming up heads three times in a row?"
"Seriously? You know that, or youíre making shit up?"
"Itís a possibility, and my fingers are crossed."
I was walking my rounds, yet again, like a good loyal Enforcement grunt, when Fuji caught up with me. Enforcement is a more honest name than Security, donít you think? Iím still waiting for the Department of Defense to change its name back to the War Department.
We met in the little Aeroponics area outside the big Rec Deck on the Second Wheel, nicknamed "The Rain Forest." It was no secret that my rounds got a little slower when I hit that area. Same as all the Enforcement grunts.
Fuji caught up with me outside The Rain Forest. Major George Fuji Fujmeister Fujiwara, the little Japanese-American man with the physique of someone half my age. Heís over 70. My partner in crime. My brother from another mother. Except in videogame tournaments. Then heís the Antichrist.
"Barry," he greeted me. "Just the person I was looking for. Would you like to know why Iím better than you at Space Zap? At all video games, actually?"
"Not all video games," I insisted.
Fuji handed me a coin. I stifled a groan. Then I looked at the coin.
"Iíve explained to you before that you canít call me Fuji because I outrank you. As a sign of respect, you must call me Fujmeister."
"Fuji. This is a quarter. Old U.S. money, 1964."
"Of course. Thatís when you were born."
A hundred and sixty years ago.
"Where the hell did you get this? It canít be real."
"Itís identical to the money you spent in your time in every single detail... except that itís not made of metal."
"Even the weight seems right."
"Your memoryís that good?"
"Well... I think itís right."
Fuji grinned. "It is. Mong asked me for a challenge, as a way to calibrate some new machinery heís bringing on-line."
"Heís old enough to remember money," I realized. Mongís from my time, but heíd gotten here the hard way, by not dying.
"He had fun. If he hadnít gone into science he couldíve been one hell of a counterfeiter."
"So whatís this quarter made of?" Damn, itís convincing. Should I bite it?
"A new metamaterial his teamís invented back on the Third Wheel. It can only be made in near-zero gravity. And with this quarter, I will show you why Iím better than you at all video games."
"Not all video games, just that stupid Space Zap. Hey, has Mong rigged this to always land on heads?"
Realization had finally dawned. Damn that Derek and his coin. He cheated.
"We wonít even be flipping it, young man," Fuji told me. "Hold out your right hand, palm up, coin in the center of it. I can take that quarter from your hand before you close it."
"Is there a betting pool on this?"
"If you were Chinese instead of Japanese, would you take the pebble from my hand?"
"I donít even want to know what that means. On three."
I knew he couldnít win this. All I had to do was close my hand.
"You call it," he added.
"One. Two. Three."
Fuji was fast, which is why he was our best pilot, but there was no way. I felt a slight brushing against my palm, but of course I closed my hand around the quarter.
"And that, young man, is why you canít beat me at video games," Fuji stated.
"Open your hand."
I did. I was holding two dimes and a quarter.
"Son of a bitch!"
Two weeks later, Mong had figured out how to communicate in Weinberg Space.
Weíd soon hear a verdict regarding whether or not Weinberg would be punished for bringing me back from the dead. Arbitration from a higher authority to determine who was in command of CONUNDRUM, Commander Adam Weinberg or Major Ethan Val Zureck. Orders regarding our next assignment, whether it was to continue on to Pegasus as originally planned or return to Earth.
No more "rogue starship" bullshit for us. The chain of command was gonna pull us tight, like a dog leashed in the yard and just barely missing the mailmanís leg.
In fact, Air Force Space Command could probably tell us whether or not Fugly was dead. If Earth and its colonies arenít under attack right now, thatís a good sign. Even better is if they can "show us the body."