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The coin lies heavy in her hand, a grimy disc of dented, stained metal, the markings worn smooth by time. An eagle on one face, the bust of a curly-haired man on the other. Nova flicks it into the air, watching it spin into a translucent sphere, and then she snatches it out of the air. It takes her a long time to gather the courage to open her hand. Tails. The eagle. What that's supposed to mean, she doesn't know.
They hung a man for this, fifteen years ago. Nova was only a child then, far too young to remember. Too young to connect the dots, when her mother told her that her father would be away for a long, long time, and then leaned forwards to hold her close. Nova's mother had not cried. Her husband had been dying for five years already, and she had long since cried all her tears dry. When Nova was old enough to understand, she had explained to her that her father had been a coward, willing to end their world to save his own life.
And yet, here she stands, prepared to commit his folly all over again more.
She is no coward, she tells herself, staring down at the thin, pale figure shaking under the sheets. This is not for her. Of course, cowardice was the least of her father's sins. He was willing to watch the whole world burn, and it hardly matters what for. Even if he had had the noblest of intentions, he risked something that was not his to gamble. The fate of the world, on the figurative flip of a coin.
"Bran?" She murmurs gently, running a hand over her brother's pale, clammy face. She buries her face in his chest, feeling only bone and thin, papery skin, begging him to wake up, to snap out of it, and tell her what to do. "Please," she whispers. "What do I do, Bran? What do I do?" He doesn't stir. His breathing is shallow, the rise and fall of his thin chest almost invisible. "Bran," she pleads, "Please, just get up!" But he does not get up, does not open those brown eyes that look just like hers- besides, she watched those eyes go milky white and blind. He will never get up, unless she takes this risk.
She reaches into her pack, and pulls the canister free. It look innocuous enough, a gray cylinder no bigger than a water bottle, tipped with a garish yellow airlock, but she knows that this is a warheads, meant to be strapped onto a missile or a bomb. Whether it was meant to heal, or kill, she does not know. She flips the coin again, staring at the canister. The coin comes to a stop, and for a moment, she does not dare to look. Heads or tails. Life or death.
She glances down at the coin. Tails. An eagle, grasping a shield and a bundle of arrows, the words "E pluribus unum" just faintly visible above it. An eagle, she thinks. Freedom. Hope. Beauty. Life. E pluribus unum... The motto of a long dead country, the words of the dead giant on which her scavenger world feeds. And she knows that this is ridiculous. This cylinder doesn't give a d--- what the coin says.
Heads, she decides. The man will be death, because here are eagles still, but no American presidents, there is no United States left. She flips the coin again with a shaking hand.
It lands on death. The man. As is only right. She should burn this cylinder, and never speak of this again. She should burn it, and start grieving.
Yet he had raised her. He had fed her, clothed her, taught her to hunt and scavenge after their mother had gone, taken by a simple fever.
She watched him shatter, first his mind, then his coordination, then his eyes, watched him slip into a feverish sleep.
Best of three?
Again, she spins the coin into the air, and watches it clink against the rough, packed dirt floor, rolling a few feet before rocking to a stop. Tails.
She remembers the soft, brown toy he had brought home to her, and called it a "teddy bear". She remembers the laughter, the rich, musical laughter when she had come home covered in mud, proudly holding the teddy bear high in the air, a three inch group of arrows sunk perfectly into the kill zone behind the shoulder.
Once again, she flips the coin. Tails.
She remembers how he looked before, tall and strong, a quick smile always at the edge of his mouth, a glint in his brown eyes. She looks at him now, pale, murmuring gibberish, his veins purple against translucent grayish skin. His eyes a milky white, darting and rolling beneath paper-thin eyelids. His arms are thin as sticks, his fingernails an unhealthy yellow.
Again, and she knows this must be the universe's way of warning her, telling her to stop now. But he will not be gone, he cannot be gone, she cannot be alone in this world.
And at last, the only one she will accept. Heads.
She takes a deep breath, and carefully works the safety cap loose. She has no right, and she knows it. She was not there during the Plague Wars. She did not see the bodies in the street. She was not present for the forced sterilization of millions to keep the disease embedded in their DNA from spreading. She did not see the barbed wire quarantine gates rise up over the land, did not see the children starve as their government withdrew. The Gray Plague killed a third of the worlds population, ravaged eight generations. Her brother may be the last to carry it inside of him. Unless this cylinder is death. Then he will be the first of a new wave of plague, and it seems sheer fantasy that anyone will survive this one. They do not have the numbers, nor the organization, nor the cruise missiles loaded with cylinders of antivirus.
She poises a pair of pliers over the airlock, the final barrier in between her and this choice. She glances over her shoulder, to make sure that the sturdy oak door- the door he built- is tightly shut, the seams sealed with mud, though she doubts it will even slow the plague down should she unleash it. She does not breath, her hands shake with strain, and she squeezes her eyes shut, feeling hot tears stream down her cheek. Do it. Do it now. At last, she lets the breath out of her lungs, and goes slack.
She reaches for the coin. One last time.
Heads or tails?
The coin spins into the air and lands.