Nothing raised Staff Sergeant Quinn Manner’s hackles like persons of low self-esteem. Of course, she wasn’t overfond of folks with high self-esteem, either. Very presumptuous of them, walking around with such high opinions of themselves for no better reason than a DARE officer told them in the fifth grade that they should pat themselves on their acne-ridden backs every time they dodge the allure of free drugs. Idiots.
Earth 661-B shared many things in common with Earth 4-H (no relation). The American propaganda program ‘DARE’ was one of them. The worldwide celebrity of Beyonce was another. A couple key differences: Earth 661-B was a) aware of the existence of Earths 1-A through 1,113-Z and b) had really embraced Oasis as the second coming of The Beatles in a way that Earth 4-H never quite managed.
Quinn Manner studied the muddy sole of her boot and scratched at it with a stick. Consistency: shitlike. Smell: not unpleasant. She rummaged the snuff box from her pocket and took a swift hit of the stuff inside. The familiar chemical cascade swept through her body, setting her limbs and digits atingle with invincibility. “Cawthorne,” she barked, craning her head back to her platoon. Private Cawthorne, who hovered somewhere just left of the fulcrum on Quinn’s self-esteem seesaw, scampered forward.
“What is it?” he said. Quinn raised an eyebrow. “Sergeant,” Cawthorne revised. “What is it, Sergeant. Is what I meant. Respectfully.”
Quinn pointed toward the tree line with her rifle. “In between us and that is thirty meters of unexplored soil.” (Another interesting divergence from Earths 4-H/661-B is that on 661-B, Americans adopted the metric system while the rest of the world still cherished inches, feet, yards, and furlongs.)
“Unexplored, Cawthorne, because your dumb ass wrecked the mine detector.” It was true—the previous evening, Private Kyle Cawthorne had laid waste to the mine detector with a misplaced stream of urine. “Now, take a look at this soil and tell me what you see.”
“Brown, Sergeant,” said Cawthorne.
“Very good,” said Quinn. “What else?”
“Soft, sir,” said Cawthorne. “Squishy.”
“Shitlike, isn’t it, Cawthorne?”
“Very much like shit, sir.”
“And what’s it smell like, Cawthorne?”
“Sweet,” said Cawthorne, kneading a clod just below his nostrils. “Like toasted marshmallow.”
“Just so,” said the staff sergeant. “What you might not know, Cawthorne, because you’re stupid, is that Nova Scotian soil, when undisturbed for a few days, hardens and dries. Takes up a musty smell, like clothes left in the wash too long.”
“I didn’t know that, sir,” Cawthorne admitted.
“No, I thought not,” said Quinn. “Which means, Cawthorne, that somebody—or something—has come this way recently. Which means, Cawthorne…”
She waited. Cawthorne mulled over this information, nervously fidgeting with his sidearm. (He’d been relieved of his standard issue rifle pending discipline for destruction of the mine detector.) “Which means…” he said, “Which means there’s a possibility that the all-clear dossier from Top Brass is out of date and there’s subterranean explosives implanted in this very expanse of soil and grass waiting to maim, mangle, and otherwise murder our very selves.” He beamed.
“Good job, Cawthorne,” said Quinn. She reflected briefly on the life choices that had led her to this moment, coaxing basic deductions from a half-baked private on the Nova Scotian front of the Canuck-American theatre. She shook her head and took another sniff from her snuff box. “Now, because it was you who unleashed golden showers all over our only piece of equipment what could detect these—what’d you call them?—subterranean explosives, you’ve gotta be the one who clears a path from here to the tree line of Fangorn.” (4-H audiences might recognize that name from works of fiction—on 661-B and forty-eight other Earths, it was a very real [and much dreaded] woods.)
Cawthorne gulped. “Yes, sir,” he said.
“Now as you know, Cawthorne, I’m not in the habit of asking my men to do something I wouldn’t do myself. Unfitting of an officer, behavior like that.”
“Which means, Cawthorne, that I’m gonna be clearing this path with you while the platoon hangs back in wait.”
“Which means, Cawthorne, that if I get myself blown to bits out in this here field it’s because your dumb ass couldn’t find a latrine last night.”
Cawthorne hung his head to hide the reddening of his cheeks. “Yes, sir,” he whispered.
Of course, Quinn Manner’s spiel about Nova Scotian soil was no truer than the Lee Harvey poppycock dreamt up in November of 1963. The truth of both was far more mundane: in Nova Scotia, the soil always smelled of marshmallow; in Dallas, JFK’s head had spontaneously combusted. In neither case were there boogeymen hiding in the shadows with mines or rifles. But Cawthorne, much like the American public in 1963, didn’t know that. Which is what made this bit of discipline on Quinn Manner’s part so brilliant—her man was in no more mortal danger than if he’d been back home eating crawdads. It was fear that Quinn wanted him to feel: fear for his own life, fear for hers, fear of his momentary lapse inflicting eternal consequence.
“Ready?” she said.
- - -
“Ten to one he shits himself,” Private Kelly Kelly said. She pushed her hair back and gazed through her scope at Cawthorne and Sergeant Manner as they crept across the open plain toward Fangorn.
“I don’t get odds,” said Rufus Wainwright.
Kelly looked at him and cocked her head. “What do you mean, you don’t get odds?”
Wainwright shrugged. “I don’t understand them. What does ‘ten to one’ mean?”
“Means she’s pretty certain Cawthorne’s gonna soil himself,” said Moses Barenboim. (Barenboim never cussed.) The group of privates chuckled and fell silent, each one’s eye pressed to his or her scope. Wainwright, uncomfy in silences, began to sing.
- - -
“Halfway there, Cawthorne,” said Quinn Manner. She glanced sideways at the private. His jaw was set hard and sweat happened freely on his brow. With great effort he took another step and winced as his weight shifted onto the virgin soil. In the absence of a mine’s telltale click, Cawthorne exhaled and opened his eyes. “Good,” said Quinn. “Keep going.”
The rest of the platoon knew what was up, of course. Quinn had relayed her plans to them this morning while Cawthorne was off fetching her a left-handed tuna stretcher from the supply caravan. Everyone but Barenboim seemed amused. (No shock there.) Throw a little scare into the kid and maybe he’ll think twice before he chugs a dozen cans of mead and lets loose all over an expensive piece of machinery.
Quinn hid a smile and moved forward. The all-clear dossier had come through from Top Brass yesterday, surprise surprise. The likelihood that the Canadians had put mines here was effectively nil. (Nova Scotia wasn’t known as the sexiest part of the Canuck-American theatre, after all.) But better safe than sorry was the American military maxim, so Quinn had had to stall her men halfway between Halifax and Malay Falls as they waited for the green light to cut through Fangorn on their way to Truro.
“Hey, Sergeant?” said Cawthorne. “I was wondering—”
But there was no chance for Cawthorne to finish his thought, because at that moment the loud and unmistakably lethal click of a mine sounded underfoot. Staff Sergeant Quinn Manner froze mid-step and stared at her boot. Lift it now and they were both goners, she knew. Cawthorne’s fear thickened the damp air. “Sarge?” he said. “What was that?”
- - -
Kelly removed her eye from the scope and swept the whole field. “What are they stopping for?” she said. Wainwright continued his song.
“Perhaps they’re taking a rest,” said Barenboim.
“Perhaps they’re taking a rest,” mimicked Private Spencer Floss.
Barenboim invited Floss to go fly a kite.
“Shut up, both of you,” said Kelly. “And you too, Wainwright. Nobody wants to hear that softcore shit.”
From the back of the cluster a voice spoke up. “I ear a gawup.” Ten heads turned to regard Private Macy Day, the deaf medic.
“What’d you say?” asked Kelly Kelly.
Day read Kelly’s lips. “I EAR A GAWUP,” she repeated, pointing to the ground. “A GAWUP.” To demonstrate, she laid on her stomach and pressed her ear to the ground, then stood and mimed riding on horseback. “A GAWUP,” she said. “ORZIZ.”
Kelly understood. “Everybody down!” she shouted, and eleven bodies dropped at once into prone positions, rifles aimed at the tree line. From this distance they’d be invisible to the naked eye, just another greenish part of the uneven terrain. Should any of the Canadian cavalry choose to inspect the horizon telescopically, though, they were sitting ducks.
- - -
“Oh God, Sarge, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Cawthorne said. His eyes were wet.
“Shut up, would you?” Quinn frowned with thought. If Cawthorne could find a heavy enough rock, they might be able to Indiana Jones the thing and swap the stone for her foot, giving them time to beat a retreat to the platoon. Then Floss, the marksman, could dislodge the rock with one shot and detonate the mine, no harm done. She was about to suggest this when the ground began to vibrate.
“Oh, no,” Cawthorne blubbered.
“That’s not the mine, brainless.”
From the tree line of Fangorn emerged two dozen mounted Canadian soldiers coming full tilt. Their steeds galloped expertly around dangerous areas of the forest’s skirt, avoiding (Quinn assumed) other mines planted in the lawn. If she’d had time, she would have wondered why Top Brass had sent a faulty all-clear yesterday. Heads were going to roll if she and Cawthorne wriggled out of this fix.
Within moments the horsemen surrounded Quinn and Cawthorne. Each brandished a bayonet at the Americans, and their horses whinnied and pranced with excitement. The ranking officer spoke. “What business have two American soldiers on the edge of Fangorn Forest, eh?”
Quinn looked coolly at her adversary. His height was hard to judge astride his mount, but he was of medium build with a handsome, boyish face. Leadership won with brains, Quinn thought, not brawn.
“We’re searching for two deserters,” she lied. “We left Halifax six nights past and tracked them here. You’d be doing us a favor if you brought us news they were dead.”
“Deserters, eh?” said the Canadian officer. He glanced around the circle at his men, then stared hard at the field where Quinn’s platoon lay hidden among tall grass. “You look like deserters yourselves, truth be told. Never heard of an American outfit this small.”
“I’m sure there’s a lot about American military practice you don’t know,” Cawthorne replied. One of the mounted soldiers cocked his rifle and nudged his horse closer to the young American.
The Canadian officer laughed. “Who’s your boy with the courage, ma’am?”
“This is Private Kyle Cawthorne,” Quinn replied. “And I’m Sergeant Quinn Manner. Who am I addressing?”
“Captain Justin Trudeau,” said the man as he clambered down from his horse. He held out a hand to Quinn. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m terribly sorry about this, but I’m afraid we have to take you into custody as prisoners of the Dominion until a satisfactory trade is reached between our governments or a total ceasefire is declared and peace restored between the two sovereignties. I hope you understand.”
Quinn, caught off guard by the Canadian courtesy, merely nodded.
“Good then,” said Trudeau. “Now, what do you think we should do about this mine, then, ma’am? Indiana Jones it maybe, eh?”