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«Discord's Apple», Carrie Vaughn

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To the memory of the two people

whose passings in 2002 made this story happen:

My grandfather, Robert Lee Vaughn

My great aunt, Rose Matern Pearl

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

All these people helped in various ways to put this book in your hands: Jo Anne and Larry Vaughn, Rob and Deb Vaughn, Al and Mary Linder, Max Campanella, Michael Bateman, Stacy Hague-Hill, David Hartwell, Dan Hooker, Ashley Grayson, and Carolyn Grayson. And, tangentially, though I didn’t even know it at the time: J. Michael Straczynski, Jessica Steen, Larry Hama, Peter Jackson, Anonymous 4, Edith Hamilton, and, of course, Virgil.

1

Finally, after driving all night, Evie arrived.

Close to town, bells and candy canes made of faded tinsel decorated the telephone poles. The same decorations had hung on the poles every year for as long as Evie could remember; they had no sparkle left. Or maybe she was too tired to notice. In the last two days, she’d only had a nap outside Albuquerque.

Hopes Fort, Colorado, was one of those small towns that dotted the Great Plains, where Main Street turned into the state highway and the post office was attached to the feed store. Hopes Fort had been dying, one boarded-up building at a time, for the last fifty years. Still, somehow the town held on, like the aged relative whose chronic illness never seemed to worsen despite all predictions to the contrary. The holiday decorations, no matter how tattered, still went up every year.

Her phone beeped, and she hooked the hands-free over her ear.

Bruce scratched at her on the other end of the connection. “Evie?”

“Bruce, speak up. The connection’s funky.”

“Have you seen the news?” Panic edged his voice. She’d been out of L.A. for only two days—what dire crisis could possibly have struck?

“No, I’ve been driving all day.”

“You haven’t even listened to the radio?”

“No.” Rather than try to find radio reception while driving through the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico, she’d depended on her digital player.

He made a noise like a deflating balloon. “The Kremlin’s been bombed. Obliterated. A Cessna filled with drums of kerosene rammed it. They’re thinking it’s Mongolian rebels.”

She took a moment to register that he was talking about current events and not a plot point in their comic book. “Then our May storyline is out the window.”

The Eagle Eye Commandos couldn’t raid the building complex if it wasn’t there. She should have seen this one coming.

“Yeah. Unless we can put some kind of ‘how things might have been’ spin on it.”

“We did that when India and Pakistan dropped nukes on each other. Why don’t we do Westerns like everyone else?”

“Because we got a letter from the President thanking us for our patriotic creativity.”

“I didn’t even vote for him.”

“Then maybe it’s because we sold half a million copies last year.”

“Oh yeah.” She pressed her head back on the headrest, stretching her arms against the steering wheel. She had to drive all the way through town to get to the farmland on the other side, where the family’s house was. The town looked desolate; she hadn’t seen anyone even walking around. “At least the issue hasn’t gone to press yet. So. The Kremlin’s been bombed. The Eagle Eyes can still raid it. They just have to search the rubble. We’ll look really up to date.”

It sounded silly, but then all Eagle Eye Commandos storylines started out silly. Working them through to the end with some degree of earnestness transformed them somehow, from adolescent military fantasies to—well, sophisticated military fantasies. They could search the rubble for . . . for hidden evidence on the whereabouts of captured American spies, which was what the original storyline had them looking for. They wouldn’t have to change a thing. Except all those gorgeous panels Bruce had drawn of Red Square would have to go.

“I’m going to have to redraw the entire book, aren’t I?”

“I’ll e-mail you a new script in a day or two.”

“Yeah. How’s your dad?”

She let out a sigh. “I haven’t seen him yet.”

“Well, good luck.”

“Thanks.”

She clicked off her phone and rubbed her eyes.

The Tastee-Freez where she’d spent so much time in high school was gone, the ice cream cone sign on its pole dismantled. Nothing had moved in to replace it. The hokey ice cream stand had been the only place to hang out, unless one of your friends had a car to drive into Pueblo, an hour away. More kids must have had cars these days. Or Hopes Fort had fewer kids.

Since high school, she’d only been back here for holidays, when the town was at its bleakest. No wonder it always depressed her. But maybe she wasn’t being fair.

Halfway down Main Street, a cop had set up a roadblock: a single hazard barricade pulled into the middle of the pavement. The one officer manning the checkpoint climbed out of the car, which was parked on the curb, and held up his hand, directing her to slow down.

Smiling, she stopped and rolled down her window. “Well, Officer. You got me.”


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